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Be Fair, Not Doctrinaire

Posted 8/31/2005

I took issue with Peter Jennings’ lack of objectivity, but Brian Morton’s piece on him struck the right tone and was well written (Political Animal, Aug. 17).

How predictable that in this tribute Morton couldn’t resist the urge to give us the half-empty glass: “The Reagan administration gutted the Fairness Doctrine . . . that made possible the rise of advocacy broadcast journalism and . . . things like the Fox News Channel.” Oy!

The facts: Federal Communications Commission policy since 1949 has been that stations should present both sides of public-policy issues. Congress—with substantial Republican help from Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms—codified the doctrine as law in 1987. Ronald Reagan, a champion of deregulation and keeping government out of the affairs of business, vetoed it.

But wait, didn’t the Democrats control Congress, and couldn’t they override the veto? They did and they could. But they didn’t.

That’s as astounding to me as it is to Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who has introduced legislation to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Speaking on Bill Moyer’s show on Dec. 17, 2004, she said: “President Reagan vetoed it. And I remember my party was in charge at the time, the Democratic Party. And I went to the leadership. And I said, ‘This is outrageous. We’ve got to try to override that veto.’ And they would not. They did not make any attempt despite the overwhelming vote in both houses to codify the Fairness Doctrine. They refused to try to override that veto.”

But as usual, Morton lays blame solely at the feet of Republicans. Perhaps if the Fairness Doctrine were law, Morton would have been required to give us a glass at least half-full.

Paul O’Connell

Editor’s note: With this issue, we welcome new music editor Jess Harvell. A Pennsylvania native and an erstwhile freelance writer for, Spin, and numerous other alt-weeklies, he takes over from Bret McCabe, who moved over to the arts editor chair earlier this summer.

And this week marks your last chance to vote in our annual Best of Baltimore Readers Poll. All ballots must be entered by Sept. 2, so get to castin’.

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