What happened to the fairness doctrine?

Bill Miles

Whatever happened to the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” in political media advertising? When I was an ‘an up and coming’ consultant, we had to be cautious to adhere to a policy of expecting our opponent(s) to be able to garner as much media coverage as our clients. This was during the 60-day run-up to voting. The Federal Communications Commission was tasked with enforcing such in the broadcast arena while print publishers self-policed their outlets. That doesn’t mean that ‘politickin’ was a Sunday School picnic. I have observed some pretty despicable acts in my time. I well remember the charges of homosexuality leveled at a major state candidate who overcame all to win. Rumors of infidelity have taken their toll among major players. Outright accusations of thievery and malfeasance have been common place. But these were not part of the organized media advertising a half century ago. Rather they played to an ‘underground market’. Race was a major player and it sometimes crept into media display. Today, dubious third party non-campaign entities attack candidates. I am proud to see in another state a candidates forcefully address what he says are outright lies being portrayed against him when he was occupying another position. He turns the table, in my opinion, by chastising the opponent responsible for the false statements and ends with a powerful message by calling his adversary by name while saying being in Washington so long had confused that person into a delusion. Changes in political media advertising began its transformation during the Ronald Reagan White House. Naturally, media liked to turn everything into a market driven practice. Ruling politicians saw an opportunity to limit Organized Labor’s “education campaigns”. Further deterioration came when the Supreme Court ruled in “Citizens United” that corporations could engage in politics as if they were people. A friend of mine in jest noted that he’d consider corporations “human” when the first business was executed by the State of Texas. Ads painted as “information” without naming the person to benefit offer the most vile and despicable images of a candidate. It’s o.k. to target the other person though. Frequently the ‘disclaimer” intended to identify the paying party for the message is obscured to the point one can’t find out who it is. That’s how ‘big money’ drives who voters elect. Usually it takes a few years for the damage to be recognized and changed. Sometimes the ‘new’ is worse than the ‘old’. In some of our early campaigns when the other side spread debilitating rumors we’d reverse the issue publicly alluding with visual proof. One time our opponent spread word that our candidate was in poor health from a heart attack, which he had overcome months earlier. We crafted a live on-screen statement appealing to viewers that “Our opponent, unable to find fault with our record of public service, is now saying we’re at death’s door. But, friends, as you can easily see, I am experiencing good health and ready to work for you night and day.” Voters bought our message. On another occasion when our candidate was in declining health, an act which manifested itself after qualifying deadline, we had to resort to other tactics. We simply went to video archives and showed scenes of earlier events and noted present accomplishing benefits. Voters re-elected him. They tell me ‘attack ads’ work. I see ample evidence from the White House to the ‘dog house’ that this is true. I’d hate for future generations of my family to stumble onto messages in which I played a role by disparaging the opposition with defamation and often outright lies. Truth, as I have documented previously via this column, is an absolute defense against libel. And even when there may be a false or reputation damaging statement, courts take into account just how much damage is actually done. When studying ‘Law and the Press’ decades ago, I remember that the author James Fennimore Cooper of “The Last of the Mohicans” was a player in the evolution of these laws. He sued many outlets over mis-statements. As the legal road wound through various places, juries rewarded him with such meager benefits that it cost a whole more than he won. So, he quit. Having noted that oddity, I suggest that some people who threaten to sue for alleged defamation may not have much of a reputation to damage.

If you would like to contact Bill Miles you can email him at bill.t.miles@gmail.com

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