Fowler on Fairness Doctrine

Former FCC Chairman Mark Fowler sent a letter to the editor of the Financial Times in London Monday to defend the deep-sixing of the so-called Fairness Doctrine by his successor, Dennis Patrick, in 1987. That’s according to a copy of the letter obtained by B&C.

Fowler and Patrick headed the FCC under the deregulatory Reagan years, when the doctrine’s demise helped prompt the rise of conservative talk radio.

The letter coincidentally came on the 50th anniversary of former FCC Chairman Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” speech, in which that chairman encouraged broadcasters to editorialize, so long as they were ‘fair.’

Following is the text of Fowler’s letter as sent.


Michael Ameigh laments the elimination of American government regulation of television and radio program content to insure “fairness” under the old Fairness Doctrine (”Partisan broadcasters fill the airwaves with spin”, May 7/8). Ameigh believes this has created “partisan media” and so political polarization. He attacks BBC Director General Mark Thompson for proposing introduction of some partisan, highly opinionated channels.

The FCC, under President Reagan — not the U.S. Congress — repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Subsequently, President Reagan vetoed congressional efforts to reinstate it. The principle for repeal is simple: The electronic press, the press that uses air and electrons, must be as free as the press that uses paper and ink. Any justification for content regulation purporting to assure fairness is an excuse, not a reason, to regulate.

Director General Thompson, like President Reagan, knows that the common man isn’t stupid and is quite capable of forming reasoned opinions among a welter of competing voices — some balanced, moderate, reasoned, others shrill, radical, and highly ideological. The people don’t need nor do they desire the heavy censor’s grease pencil of politicians and government bureaucrats to regulate broadcast content in the name of fairness.

This enlightened view of broadcast regulation best serves and preserves a free people. It’s hardly radical. It’s the print model, Mr. Ameigh!


Mark Fowler

Chairman, FCC, 1981-1987

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.