Today, under very different conditions of multiple channels being available, the Fairness Doctrine makes no sense. But back in the 1960s, it was right. Here’s the story of how an unknown young man’s letter to the regulatory agency eliminated tobacco advertising from US TV. I used to teach about this, using it as an example of the serendipity of policy interventions. Sometimes, there’s a Henry Geller at the other end.
Mr. Banzaf, a 25-year-old recent graduate of Columbia Law School, complained in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission that while television news coverage included both sides of the tobacco debate, the cigarette commercials did not. Under the so-called fairness doctrine, which required that both sides of an issue of public concern be presented, weren’t opponents of smoking entitled to free airtime?
“When his letter came in, it struck a responsive chord, and I thought why not use it?” Henry Geller, the F.C.C. counsel at the time, recalled in an unpublished memoir.
Mr. Geller, who died on April 7 in Washington at 96, did just that. He suggested that one antismoking public service message be broadcast free for every paid cigarette advertisement.
That proposed formula so unnerved station owners afraid of jeopardizing their licenses, and tobacco companies concerned about competing with powerful antismoking commercials, that Congress was finally able to ban the advertising altogether.