The Fairness Doctrine

By Dr. Rick Flanders

“Then said the princes and all the people unto the priests and to the prophets; This man is not worthy to die: for he hath spoken to us in the name of the LORD our God.”

(Jeremiah 26:16)

Possibly the most disturbing prospect for me in regard to the new management of things in Washington is the proposed reinstatement of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.” Several leading Democrats have suggested that the new president and Congress consider reviving this policy at the Federal Communications Commission before too long. I know that this would be a bad idea because I have personally had experience with the Fairness Doctrine. It would not be an exaggeration to say that my life was affected by the implementation of this policy more than thirty years ago. It is time for me to tell my story.

In the 1960s, there was quite a lot of what could be called conservative talk radio. These were not the call-in programs conducted by right-leaning hosts we have all heard in recent years; they were fifteen- or thirty-minute commentaries by spokesmen of an earlier form of the conservative movement. I remember listening to “Christian Crusade” and “America’s Future,” as well as “The Manion Forum” and “The Independent American.” There were also other national radio programs, such as “The Dan Smoot Report” and “The Twentieth Century Reformation Hour” and Tom Anderson’s commentary, which warned against Communism either weekly or every weekday, and exposed leftists in the government and even in the churches. My thinking and my life were touched powerfully by one of those radio voices, that of Dr. Carl McIntire, a preacher whose weekday program for a time was heard on over 600 stations nationwide. It was through his “Twentieth Century Reformation Hour” that he opened my eyes to the theological and political liberalism of my church, and brought to me for the first time to an understanding of the Gospel of the grace of God. Through Carl McIntire’s ministry, I was born again.

But liberals in the media and the government became increasingly alarmed at the influence of right-wing radio. Magazines published articles and networks broadcast documentaries to warn the public of the dangers posed by “extremists” on the “ultra-right.” The Kennedy administration was lobbied by prominent liberal figures to do something to suppress extremism. Anyone who heard the alarm would gather from the reports that these conservative groups were inciting violence or were in some way subversive. There certainly was an impression widely spread that the “thunder on the right” somehow posed a threat to democracy. It was in those times that the government invented the Fairness Doctrine as a way to shut the extremists up.

The Fairness Doctrine required a radio station that carried a program on which someone is personally “attacked” to give that person “free time” on the station to answer the charges. At first this policy of the F.C.C. sounded “fair,” but its effect was anything but fair. A personal attack was defined as any critical statement that included the name of the individual criticized. The free-time requirement pressured radio stations to stop airing conservatives like McIntire because every time they named a culprit who said or did something bad, using air-time they paid for, the station would have to give free time to those who were named.

The Fairness Doctrine had absolutely no effect on network news or broadcast “journalism.” For instance, no “right-wing extremist” was given free time to defend himself from false statements made about him on television. The enforcement of it was selective. There was no improvement in the liberal media of the ‘60s in the direction of fairness to conservatives. The policy had one objective, getting conservatives off the air, and it was very successful in fulfilling it.

Dr. McIntire always offered to give opponents time on his broadcast to answer any charges he had made against them. He would be paying for the air-time at no expense to the stations that carried his program. However, this offer was never accepted, and it would not satisfy the enforcers at the F.C.C. The Fairness Doctrine at first forced McIntire to stop naming names, and eventually forced him off radio. In just a few years, it got rid of national conservative programming altogether!

Now people like Carl McIntire were doing only what Americans have the right to do, and the Fairness Doctrine was simply suppressing his freedom of speech. Nobody ever proposed that the federal government enforce any kind of “fairness” policy on newspapers or magazines, because such a thing would be a clear violation of the freedom of the press. But such a rule for broadcast communication was also a violation of the First Amendment. After President Reagan eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in the 1980s, even liberals admitted that it had been an outrageous abuse of power. The new freedom on the radio gave rise to the current talk-radio phenomenon, which is now threatened by suggestions that the Fairness Doctrine be revived.

In 2002, the evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, published an article entitled, “That’s Right, Dr. McIntire!” which honored the radio preacher who so affected my life. It was strange that they would compliment Carl McIntire, and virtually apologize to him, because during his heyday they would not have done so. In those days, Christianity Today was the voice of what was called “the new evangelicalism” which scorned the negativity of the older “fundamentalist” brand of evangelicalism, which McIntire represented. Decades after the Fairness Doctrine put McIntire off the year without so much as a complaint from establishment evangelicals, their primary periodical admitted that they had been wrong about him in at least one way. It seems that secret Soviet files that have been opened since the fall of the evil empire have verified McIntire’s claim in the 1960s that Russian delegates to the World Council of Churches included KGB agents. Liberal churchmen were outraged when the right-wing preacher was saying on his program that sources in the underground church had informed him of the true identity of these wolves in sheep’s clothing. They insisted that the charges were false, and that McIntire was harming U.S./U.S.S.R. relations and inter-church cooperation by his insults. Soft-spoken evangelicals joined the liberals and the media in castigating him for saying such things. It was more proof, some asserted, that right-wing radio was dangerous. But now we know that what Dr. McIntire said was not dangerous, that it was factual, and that it was important news. However the government decided it must shut him up with the Fairness Doctrine.

Will the Fairness Doctrine live again? Will the freedom of speech again be throttled on the radio? Let us all hope not. Carl McIntire used to start his program with the statement, “Freedom is everybody’s business: your business; my business; the church’s business.” And he was right about this, too. The religious leaders of Jeremiah’s day wanted to silence him, too, but “the princes and all the people” wouldn’t let them do it (Jeremiah 26:16) because “he hath spoken to us in the name of the LORD.” Let the preachers preach, and let the people judge. May Americans of all persuasions prevent those in power from using that power to silence those who are not.

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