What is it about birthdays that make you reflect on what has been and think about what’s to come? The birthday I recently observed wasn’t one of those milestone events, but after you pass your seventh decade, every year should be both a celebration and a time for reflection.
I was one of the lucky ones who knew, at a very early age, my career choice and, over the past 60 years, with a couple of minor detours, I have been proud to call myself a broadcaster.
It was part of the indoctrination process in radio and television to understand our fiduciary responsibility. In exchange for the privilege of being allocated a frequency, airways owned by the public, the Federal Communications Commission entrusted broadcasters to serve “the public interest, convenience and necessity.” When I first came into the profession in 1963, licensees were required to devote a certain percentage of their programing to news, a certain percentage to education, agriculture, religion and to public affairs. Every few years we had to document we had met these objectives in order to have our broadcast licenses renewed.
Among the sacred covenants in broadcasting was the 1949 “Fairness Doctrine,” an FCC policy that stated that holders of broadcast licenses were required to present controversial issues of public importance, and to do so in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. As a licensee, I never thought any of these regulations unreasonable or onerous.
That mandate guided broadcasters until 1987, when, following a wave of de-regulation, the FCC, abolished it. Even so, many longtime broadcasters, especially public broadcasters, revered and adhered to the Fairness Doctrine. Count me among them.
For more than thirty years I wrote and delivered daily radio editorials on my stations, opinion pieces that ranged from civic affairs, local government issues and national matters. At one point we received a threat that a cross would be burned in front of the station. One group suggested my family might not receive good healthcare because of my comments, and on more than one occasion government officials came to offer explanations of issues they were considering, so as to prevent a negative editorial. I knew these reactions came with the territory, however I always felt my comments and our local news coverage were important in informing our community; anyone who disagreed was willingly offered the opportunity for equal time. This was an essential element of what I’ve called “Balanced debate for the Old North State.”
I’ve been blessed to belong to an honorable profession, along with many other outstanding broadcasters, who helped people know what was happening beyond their workplace or home. We believe, as Thomas Jefferson said, that “a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”
I worry about how and where people get their information today, especially considering the decline and demise of newspapers, the waning local ownership of radio stations, the loss of editorial voices and especially of dissenting opinions. We don’t often hear those “honest, equitable and balanced” voices and I find myself wishing broadcasting would return to the days of the Fairness Doctrine.
Where these ideals are lost, we the public lose.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of "NC SPIN" on UNC-TV.