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An Indigenous Perspective on the Fairness Doctrine

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By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© 2009 Native American Journalists Foundation, Inc.

February 16, 2009

How many of you remember a policy of the Federal Communications Commission known as the "Fairness Doctrine?"

The doctrine was an attempt by the FCC to "ensure that all coverage of controversial issues be balanced and fair. The FCC took the view in 1949 that radio station licensees were "public trustees," and thus had an obligation to give reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance.

With the introduction of television, the FCC stood behind the Fairness Doctrine by setting down rules regulating personal attacks and editorializing by the stations. And in 1971 the FCC set requirements for the stations to report, along with their license renewal applications, the efforts they had made to seek out and address issues of concern to the community. This process became known as the "Ascertainment of Community Needs" and the job of carrying out this mandate was left in the hands of the station managers.

The "Fairness Doctrine" is in the air once again following the political campaigns of both parties. Questions of whether there was indeed a "balanced and fair" coverage of the candidates has sent waves of anger and perhaps fear, through the ranks of the more conservative talk show hosts on radio and television. Perhaps that apprehension should also be felt by those radio personalities on the more liberal and so-called progressive talk shows. Both sides were fairly liberal in their bashing of political candidates whose views they did not share.

And so a doctrine originally intended to make sure radio and television stations did not use their stations simply as advocates with a singular perspective morphed into a policy that actually advocated for equal community participation by minorities. The FCC made it a requirement that the stations allow all points of view and the policy was strictly enforced.

Each station was required to maintain a log keeping track of the amount of time allocated to minority points of view and submitted when license renewal time came around. Many stations fulfilled this requirement by airing radio and television shows hosted and produced by members of a minority race. This policy, often overlooked when researching the "Fairness Doctrine," led to many groundbreaking shows for African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that these media doors would not have been opened to members of minority races without the whip known as the "Fairness Doctrine."

All of a sudden, where there were none and where the possibilities of one ever happening were at one time slim to none, television and radio shows hosted and produced by Native Americans began to spring up around Indian country. White listeners and viewers were introduced to a perspective that existed in their neighborhoods for years and yet it was a perspective totally new to them. An American Indian point of view began to surface.

Down in Albuquerque a Laguna man named John Belindo began a television show called "The First Americans," a show I co-hosted with him on several occasions and when I moved back home to South Dakota I brought the idea with me and when an opportunity arose for me to emulate Belindo, I did just that and in 1975 I started a weekly Northern Plains version of "The First Americans" at KEVN a commercially owned station located in Rapid City.

Bob Giago, Oglala Lakota and his then wife Millie, Laguna, were doing television shows in Oklahoma City. Wallace Coffey, who later went on the become chairman of the Comanche Nation, was also doing a weekly TV show in Oklahoma City.

Up in North Dakota Harriet Skye, a Hunkpapa Lakota, was doing a weekly talk show on Bismarck television and over in Billings, Montana, a Nez Perce man named Ron Holt was doing a show called "Indians in Progress."

Not one of us realized that these doors of opportunity had opened for us because of the "Fairness Doctrine." We only knew the doors had opened and we were bound and determined to make the most of it while it lasted. Ron Holt discovered the power of the Fairness Doctrine when he had the Area Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on his show and was verbally accosted by a tribal leader demanding equal time. "I asked the station manager about it and he told me that I had better damned well give the tribal leader equal time because that was the rule of the Fairness Doctrine. It was the first time I heard about it," he said.

The battle to shut the doors forever on the Fairness Doctrine or to give it a new life is in the hands of the new Congress. When it was in full force and up for renewal in 1987, it was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan and when it came up again during the Bush administration, it was vetoed again. Will it be renewed or buried in the Barack Obama administration?

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was the founder and publisher of Indian Country Today, the Lakota Times, and the Lakota Journal. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com)