The KYAY radio station broadcasts from the San Carlos Apache Nation in Arizona. Photo: Loris Taylor, President & CEO, Native Public Media

Tim Giago: Fairness policy in media paved the way for more Indian Country voices

Notes from Indian Country

The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine had unforeseen consequences
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji (Stands Up For Them)

When radio first started to make an impact on its listeners around 1929 there was a great fear that it would be used in a lot of ways to circumvent free speech.

In order to ensure that all sides of an argument could be aired the U. S. Congress came up with the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine had two basic elements: It required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows or editorials.

I was living on the Pine Ridge Reservation when KILI-FM Radio first came on the air in 1983. At first the station leaned heavily toward broadcasting the political ideologies of the American Indian Movement so much so that many of the supporters of the Dick Wilson Administration began to call Porcupine Butte, where the station was located, Mockingbird Hill.

Before long, wiser heads prevailed at KILI and the station broadcasters began to include all elements of the reservation in its daily broadcasts. Station Manager Tom Casey, a man who came to the reservation from Colorado with the VISTA Program, took charge of the station and fought many battles to keep the station open to all and more than that, to keep the station on the air through all of its early financial and political upheavals.

The Fairness Doctrine had one unintentional affect that impacted minorities. Since it required that diverse opinions also be included on the broadcast networks and that some of the programming be directed toward any community with a large ethnic minority, it opened the doors for members of minority races to seek and gain airtime.

In Oklahoma television shows hosted by Wallace Coffey, Comanche, and Bob and Millie Giago, Lakota and Laguna, soon began to make an impact. In North Dakota, Harriet Sky, Hunkpapa, hosted a talk show on a television station in Bismarck, and in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a show called the First Americans on local television hosted by Jon Belindo, Navajo/Kiowa, started to air.

There were shows in Arizona hosted by Native Americans also and in Rapid City I produced and hosted a weekly show on KEVN-TV in 1975 which I also called The First Americans. None of this would have happened without the Fairness Doctrine.

When Ronald Reagan was elected President one of his goals was to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine and he put his own people in the Federal Communications Commission to accomplish that goal and it came to an end in 1986.

Environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. had this to say about the Fairness Doctrine:
“The devolution of the American press began in 1986 when Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine.

We had a law in this country that we passed in 1928 that said that the air waves belong to the public. The broadcasters can be licensed to use them, but only if they use them to promote the public interest, to inform the public and advance democracy. That’s why we have the 6 o’clock news. They didn’t want it. The broadcasters didn’t want that because the news departments were chronic money losers.

But they were forced to put on the news at 6:00 and even today you hear news on the music radio stations and that’s an artifact of the Fairness Doctrine. They said, if you’re using the broadcast air waves, you have to do that... They no longer have an obligation to serve the public interest. Their only obligation is to their shareholders. They serve that obligation not by informing us, telling us the things we need to understand to make rational decisions in a democracy, but rather by entertaining us... We know we’re the best entertained, the least informed, people on the face of the world. They got rid of their investigative reporters. 85 percent of them lost their jobs in the last 15 years.”

Andrew Jay Schwartzman wondered why activists should still be concerned about the Fairness Doctrine. He said, “What has not changed since 1987 is that over-the-air broadcasting remains the most powerful force affecting public opinion, especially on local issues; as public trustees, broadcasters ought to be insuring that they inform the public, not inflame them. That’s why we need a Fairness Doctrine. It’s not a universal solution. It’s not a substitute for reform or for diversity of ownership. It’s simply a mechanism to address the most extreme kinds of broadcast abuse.”

With the demise of the Fairness Doctrine the airwaves started to be inundated with commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage, two extremely right wing proponents of conservatism. Flush with unlimited funds from powerful conservatives the far right has begun to dominate the airwaves and the so-called liberals and progressives, unable to attain a financial base to support their airtime, have nearly faded from the airwaves.

Will there ever be another Fairness Doctrine? Probably not, with the political atmosphere that now prevails.

Contact Tim Giago at