The Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the Irony of Talk Radio: A Story of Political Entrepreneurship, Risk, and Cover
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The Repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the Irony of Talk Radio:
A Story of Political Entrepreneurship, Risk, and Cover

More than twenty-five years after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987, it is still very much part of public debate. Within the last decade, there have been moves to revive the doctrine by Democrats, followed by Republican reactionary clamor.1 But critics contend what is afoot is more “saber rattling” than any threat to policy change—with the left using it as an empty threat, and the right employing it is a rallying cry.2 Congress has not voted on the Doctrine since 1987, and President Barack Obama does not favor repeal.3 While change to the policy is unlikely, the Fairness Doctrine remains a lightning rod. It is not hard to see why. The repeal of the doctrine ushered the phenomenon of conservative talk radio onto the media landscape, creating a new political force. It catapulted broadcasters like Rush Limbaugh to positions of influence.4 Conservatives do not want to turn back the clock. [End Page 375]

The goal of this research does happen to be to turn back the clock—to revisit the unlikely beginnings of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that was in effect from 1949 to 1987. It called on broadcasters to provide balanced views on controversial topics. For many, the end of the doctrine is associated with the rise of conservative talk radio, which flourished once the programming requirements of balance in the name of the “public interest” were eliminated. Indeed, informational radio formats, including talk and public affairs, rose from just 7 percent of AM stations in 1987 to 28 percent by 1995.5 The literature in the communications and political science fields and the accounts of the main actors as told to this author identify a strong causal link between the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the advent of talk radio.6 Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella write, “The end of the Fairness Doctrine paved the way for talk radio as we know it today.”7 However, despite the link between the doctrine’s demise and talk radio that has been made, talk radio interests exerted no influence on the policy change according to the accounts of commissioners at the FCC during the repeal process.8 Indeed, talk radio was an ironic and unforeseen outcome of the repeal of the doctrine: many conservatives were actually against repeal, even though President Ronald Reagan and the FCC chairmen he appointed were for its elimination.

While today the Fairness Doctrine is associated with names like Rush Limbaugh, who was among its beneficiaries, this article brings to the forefront the names of Mark Fowler and Dennis Patrick, the chairmen of the FCC who presided over the process of repealing the doctrine. The research for this paper includes interviews with Fowler and Patrick and other principal actors who uniquely illuminate the story of repeal. The research also includes a review of FCC documents, including more than one hundred letters from various parties in 1984–85 that provide insight into positions and interests on both sides.

This research examines the role of the FCC chairmen as political entrepreneurs confronting challenges in the institutional environment and assuming the “risk” associated with dissenting from some in their own party. Although Fowler and Patrick served under a president who supported repeal, they ultimately required “cover” from the Supreme Court to change Fairness Doctrine policy. The story evaluates their success according to criteria associated with successful political entrepreneurs, including reputation, bureaucratic autonomy, and risk. It critically assesses to what extent their achievements were hindered by forces of opposition from their own party and facilitated by opinions of the courts. [End Page 376]

This is a story that would be fascinating associated with any policy change. Several dynamic political elements were visible: division within the Republican Party; dissent between the executive and legislative branches; dispute over administrative vs. congressional regulatory turf; and a crucial role played by the courts. There was one blind spot: despite some exercise of voices from media, especially...