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Ronald Reagan. (AP) Ronald Reagan. (AP)

Ronald Reagan. (AP)

Tatevik Lazaryan
By Tatevik Lazaryan June 18, 2024

Don’t blame Ronald Reagan for Fox News. The Fairness Doctrine didn’t apply to cable networks.

If Your Time is short

  • The Fairness Doctrine applied to broadcast licensees only, not cable networks. It required broadcast stations to "afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance."

  • The Federal Communications Commission eliminated the rule in 1987 amid a changing and more diverse media landscape. Democrats in the House and Senate tried to pass a law to keep it intact, but President Ronald Reagan vetoed it, saying he felt the policy was "antagonistic" to First Amendment protections.

  • Although some people argue that the Fairness Doctrine’s elimination shifted the media landscape, it never applied to cable networks and, according to a Congressional Research Services analysis, would not be applied constitutionally to cable or satellite service providers.

Is former President Ronald Reagan the "father of fake news"?

A May 26 Instagram post claims so, linking Reagan’s actions with respect to a 1949 law known as the Fairness Doctrine to the rise of Fox News, a leading platform for modern-day conservative commentary.

"Ronald Reagan’s FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which since 1949, required media to present both sides' opinions in the rare event they weren't just reporting straight news," the post said.

"A Democrat-controlled Congress passed a bill to re-instate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Reagan vetoed the bill. Fox News followed in the 1990s. America is now more polarized and misinformed than ever." 

This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.

That’s because this oversimplifies what transpired. Reagan did veto a bill that would have codified the Fairness Doctrine, but the law applied exclusively to broadcast licensees and would not have affected cable networks.

What was the Fairness Doctrine?

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission, the federal regulatory agency overseeing broadcast licenses, issued a report outlining the Fairness Doctrine, a policy aiming to "afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance.

The policy stipulated that broadcast licensees must cover controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner. They should allocate time for discussions on important topics and provide contrasting viewpoints.

Historian Paul Matzko said the policy was rooted in the "scarcity principle," a legal argument developed in the 1930s. "It said that because the radio spectrum was naturally scarce, the federal government ought to have the authority to control access to the airwaves," said Matzko, a senior program manager at the Institute for Humane Studies and former Cato Institute fellow who has written about the policy before.

The policy was also reflected in regulations that mandated broadcasters allow individuals targeted by personal attacks to respond.

Critics of the policy argued it privileged an audience’s rights to diverse voices over broadcasters’ First Amendment protections. One Pennsylvania radio station, Red Lion Broadcasting Co., sued the FCC after the agency found the station out of compliance with the rule. The station had broadcast an attack on journalist Fred Cook, to which Cook demanded on-air time to respond but was denied. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that freedom of speech was the right of viewers and listeners, not broadcasters, and because radio frequencies were limited, licensees had to represent a range of viewpoints.

What became of the Fairness Doctrine?

Technological advancements, such as the rise of cable television channels in the 1980s, transformed the media landscape, prompting the FCC to reconsider the Fairness Doctrine's relevance. 

In 1987, while Reagan was president, the FCC announced plans to rescind the Fairness Doctrine after concluding it stifled broadcasters' speech and impeded open debate on public airwaves.

In anticipation of its elimination, Democrats pushed to enshrine the Fairness Doctrine into law with the Fairness in Broadcasting Act of 1987. But Reagan vetoed the bill, and the FCC officially rescinded the Fairness Doctrine months later.

In his message to the Senate returning the Fairness in Broadcasting bill without approval, Reagan wrote that he felt the rule butted against the First Amendment’s protections.

"This type of content-based regulation by the federal government is, in my judgment, antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment," Reagan wrote June 19, 1987. "In any other medium besides broadcasting, such federal policing of the editorial judgment of journalists would be unthinkable."

Matzko, however, said it’s inaccurate to attribute the Fairness Doctrine’s demise solely to Reagan. Efforts to deregulate the airwaves started in 1977 under Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, he said.

The Fairness Doctrine would not have applied to Fox News

Fox News launched in 1996 on cable, focusing on political news and commentary. Some critics say the Fairness Doctrine’s demise brought about a shift in the media landscape that stoked greater political polarization.

John Watson, an associate journalism professor at American University, called the Fairness Doctrine "one of the rules developed to guide broadcasters toward programming in the public interest" and said he does believe its elimination helped set the stage for more partisan news media.

"The legacy version of the Fairness Doctrine would have prevented or severely altered Fox programming that was billed as news or commentary," Watson said.

Others argue its implications on free speech, had it been expanded to all modern-day platforms, could present dangerous consequences. It would put government in a position where it should not be — judging a broadcaster’s editorial decisions as to what should and should not be aired," attorney David Oxenford wrote for his Broadcast Law blog in 2021. "This has never been the role of the government in our country, and it should not be now."

Where the post goes wrong is to assume that the Fairness Doctrine would have applied to Fox News. As a cable network, it would not have been affected by the rules.

Because cable "doesn't rely on scarce, publicly-owned and administered spectrum," Matzko said, it’s "generally free from content-based regulations like obscenity rules and primetime TV restrictions as well as licensure. All of which is to say, the (Fairness Doctrine) would not have applied to the rise of cable news in general or Fox News specifically."

A 2011 Congressional Research Services report on the Fairness Doctrine’s history and constitutional issues noted that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed its position that broadcast media is free to consumers and therefore distinct from other forms of media for which people must pay, including cable, internet and satellite. 

"It does not appear that the Fairness Doctrine may be applied constitutionally to cable or satellite service providers," the report said.

Our ruling

An Instagram post said that Reagan’s FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine and gave rise to Fox News.

The FCC during Reagan’s administration did eliminate the Fairness Doctrine. And Reagan did veto a Democratic-led bill that would have kept it intact. Some critics say the rule’s absence altered the media landscape in favor of greater political polarization, although this opinion is not roundly held.

Nevertheless, the Fairness Doctrine never applied to cable networks; it applied only to broadcast radio and television stations. So, when Fox News launched in 1996, it would not have been subject to the doctrine’s rules.

We rate claims that Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine and gave rise to Fox News’ creation Mostly False.

Our Sources

Instagram post (archived), May 26, 2024

Congressional Research Service, "Fairness Doctrine: History and Constitutional Issues," July 13, 2011 

Ronald Reagan Library, "Message to the Senate Returning Without Approval the Fairness in Broadcasting Bill," June 19, 1987

CATO Institute, "The Sordid History of the Fairness Doctrine," Jan. 30, 2021

Broadcast Law Blog, "The Return of the Fairness Doctrine – What it Was and Why it Won’t Return," Feb. 11, 2021, "Opinion: When fairness is no longer a doctrine, it must be a practice,", August 17, 2023, "Fairness Doctrine fight goes on," Jan. 16, 2011

CATO Institute, "Playing Three Lies and a Truth with Bette Midler on the Fairness Doctrine," April 4, 2022

Truth or Fiction, "The Fairness Doctrine and Ronald Reagan," March 28, 2022

USA Today, "Fact check: Fairness Doctrine only applied to broadcast licenses, not cable TV like Fox News," Nov. 28, 2020

Snopes, "Did Ronald Reagan Pave the Way for Fox News?" Jan. 26, 2018

Email exchange with John Watson, associate journalism professor at American University, June 13-14, 2024

Email exchange with Paul Matzko, historian and senior program manager, Institute for Humane Studies, June 15, 2024


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