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Copps says he does not favor a new Fairness Doctrine

Responding to a letter from the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee questioning his intentions, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said Dec. 10 he is not interested in taking steps to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.

Congressman Joe Barton, R-TX, questioned whether Copps was seeking to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in a Dec. 6 letter, four days after the FCC commissioner delivered a speech to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in which he proposed creating a test to ensure broadcasters are serving the public interest.

“The Federal Communications Commission should conduct a public value test of every broadcast station at relicensing time, which should occur, I believe, every four years in lieu of the slam-dunk, no-questions-asked, eight-year renewals we dispense 100 percent of the time now,” Copps said in his speech.

Stations that pass the test, Copps proposed, keep their license. Those that don’t would go on probation for a year during which if they show “measurable progress” they would be granted license renewal for an additional year. Those that fail “give the license to someone who will use it to serve the public interest,” Copps said. The commissioner then outlined various criteria, including “meaningful commitments to news and public affairs programming,” which the FCC would use to determine a passing or failing grade.

In his letter to Copps, Barton said it appeared the driving force behind Copps’ desire to create the test may have been revealed Dec. 1 during an interview with BBC America. The letter quoted a portion of the interview during which the commissioner said:

“We are not producing the body of news and information that democracy needs to conduct its civic dialogue; we’re not producing as much news as we did five, ten years, fifteen years ago, and we have to reverse that trend or I think we are going to be pretty close to denying our citizens the essential news and information that they need to have in order to make intelligent decisions about the full direction of their country.”

To the contrary, Barton said in his letter, since the end of regulations like the Fairness Doctrine there has been “an explosion in the number of news programs on television and radio.” Freed from such regulations, broadcasters no longer fear being required to provide air time to all opposing viewpoints when they address controversial issues, he said in the letter.

In his letter to Copps, Barton asked the commissioner to respond to three questions. They included whether Copps believes the FCC should reinstate the Fairness Doctrine; if Copps’ proposed public value test is an effort to bring back the ascertainment rules; and whether Copps believes “that five commissioners can do a better job of ensuring that Americans have access to a wide diversity of content and viewpoints than Americans can themselves” by expressing their own viewing and listening preferences in a competitive media market.

In his response Copps not only told Barton he does not believe the commission should reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, but quoted himself from a speech more than a year ago in which he said, “The Fairness Doctrine is long gone, and it’s not coming back.”

Copps also told Barton that media conglomerates “often owned from afar” can be out of touch with local viewers and listeners. “I do not think it is onerous to expect broadcasters, in exchange for free use of the airwaves, to engage in some level of dialogue with the citizens of a community of license” about covering issues of interest.

Regarding Barton’s question about the commission doing a better job than the American public at assuring access to diverse content and viewpoints, Copps said the FCC is charged by the Communications Act with the responsibility of ensuring stations operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.