Every few years since 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission repealed the Fairness Doctrine, a congressional Democrat garners headlines by proposing that we ought to bring it back to stymie conservative dominance of talk radio or cable news. Conservative broadcasters respond by pointing out the liberal bent in television or newsprint. Everyone has a satisfying galumph, gets bored, and nothing happens.
But that predictable pattern has been disrupted, in part because of social media. Since 2017, a growing number of Republicans have begun calling for Fairness Doctrine-style government regulation of the internet. At the same time, interest in internet regulation is peaking among progressive Democrats, who want to counter the misinformation that helped fuel the January 6 insurrection. Given that President Biden has himself expressed a desire to curtail Section 230 protections for online platforms, the odds of significant government regulation of the internet have not been this high since the 1990s.
Progressive support for such measures is to be expected—they’ve never met a system that a little technocratic tinkering couldn’t improve—but what is truly surprising is that self-described conservatives would support this kind of government intervention. That is because the last time the government attempted to regulate mass media to ensure fairness and ideological diversity, it resulted in one of the most successful episodes of censorship in U.S. history. And conservatives were the target.
You might be asking yourself, what exactly is the Fairness Doctrine? In 1949 the Federal Communications Commission notified radio station owners that their broadcast licenses were contingent on whether they operated “on a basis of overall fairness,” which meant making their facilities “available for the expression of the contrasting views of all responsible elements in the community on various issues which arise.” If a station were to air a segment about a controversial political issue or current event, it was obligated to represent multiple viewpoints about that topic (though in practice it turned into a blunt both sides-ism). If a station failed to consistently do so, it risked losing its station license at renewal time, which would be the kiss of death.