For the most part, the posts on Facebook have their history correct.
The Federal Communications Commission has long been charged with issuing broadcast licenses to radio and television stations that operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” per its website.
In 1949, the FCC issued a report that established the duty of broadcast licensees to cover controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner. That obligation was termed the Fairness Doctrine.
Its basic requirements were that broadcasters “devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance” and “affirmatively endeavor to make … facilities available for the expression of contrasting viewpoints held by responsible elements with respect to the controversial issues,” per a report by the Congressional Research Service.
“In practice, it required broadcasters to identify issues of public importance, decide to cover those issues, and then to afford the best representatives of the opposing views on the issue the opportunity to present their case to the community,” the report explains.
It also required broadcasters to allow individuals who were the subject of editorials or personal attacks to be granted an opportunity to respond, and established that candidates for public office are entitled to equal airtime, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.
(The mandate of equal airtime for office seekers became federal law in 1959, when Congress amended the Communications Act.)
Most broadcasters complained that the Fairness Doctrine was overly burdensome and an inhibition to their coverage and free speech. They also argued that growth in the media industry rendered it obsolete.
The debate over the requirement peaked in the mid-1980s.
In June 1987, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives and Senate passed legislation to preemptively codify the doctrine into federal law. Reagan vetoed it, per the Los Angeles Times.
It wasn’t until afterward, in August 1987, that the FCC voted to abolish the doctrine on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment and stifled the sort of democratic debate it was intended to promote, according to the New York Times.
(The decision had no impact on the rule that candidates for public office be offered equal airtime, since that had become law. It also left the editorial and personal-attack provisions, which were in effect until 2000.)
Though it had not been enforced since 1987, the Fairness Doctrine was not technically scratched from the books until 2011, per to the Washington Post.