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Why Trump is stuck with ‘Saturday Night Live’

13 1 0
19.03.2019

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS - U.S. President Donald Trump apparently caught a rerun of “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, and decided to tweet Sunday morning that the NBC program should be investigated by the Federal Communication Commission for parodying him so much. That’s legally absurd.

But Trump’s lament reflects the persistent power of the old idea that television networks should be fair to all political sides and give equal time to all candidates for office. It’s worth asking: What’s the current state of the law on broadcaster fairness? And beyond the law, should fairness be an objective of any kind in the era of cable news and social media?

It’s important to distinguish the two legal principles derived from the federal regulation of broadcasting: the fairness doctrine and the equal-time rule.

The fairness doctrine, instituted by FCC regulation in 1949, required radio and television broadcasters to be honest, equitable and balanced in presenting matters of public importance. It applied only to licensed broadcasters using the airwaves, not to newspapers. Cable television hadn’t yet been invented.

The doctrine was challenged as a limitation on broadcasters’ freedom of speech, because it obviously affected what they could and must say. In an important 1969 decision, Red Lion v. FCC, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the fairness rule.

The court reasoned that because bandwidth was a scarce, limited........

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