FCC’s lone Republican speaks out against Fairness Doctrine

Robert McDowell argues that re-imposing the doctrine could undermine the justification for media localism and children’s TV regulations
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FCC commissioner Robert McDowell asked Virginia broadcasters last week to provide perspective on points raised in a recent commission technical paper on spectrum.

At the Media Institute in Washington last week Robert McDowell, the lone Republican commissioner of the FCC, spoke out against efforts to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine.

Re-imposing the doctrine, argued McDowell, could undermine the justification for media localism and children’s TV regulations, and could be used against public radio. He noted both Democrats and Republicans have used the doctrine against their opponents.

One of the big fears of Republicans is that a reinstatement of the doctrine could undermine right-wing radio commentators, especially Rush Limbaugh, who has gained enormous power as an opponent to Democrats. Limbaugh recently created a media firestorm by saying on the air that he hoped President Obama fails in office.

The Fairness Doctrine, which was terminated by the FCC in 1987, required broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues. McDowell warned that if the doctrine is revived, it will probably get a new name in order not to carry old baggage.

He suggested a new version of the doctrine could become part of initiatives with names like localism, diversity or network neutrality. “According to some, the premise of any of these initiatives is similar to the philosophical underpinnings of the doctrine: the government must keep electronic conduits of information viewpoint neutral,” he said.

McDowell suggested that a stealth version of the doctrine may already be at the FCC in the form of community advisory boards to help determine local programming. If such boards are voluntary, it would be fine, he said. But that if they are required, “Would not such a policy be akin to re-imposition of the Doctrine, albeit under a different name and sales pitch?” McDowell asked.

The Republican also said that efforts to re-impose the doctrine could stretch to cable, satellite, and even the Internet. “Certain legal commentators have suggested that a new corollary of the Doctrine should be fashioned for the Internet, on the theory that web surfers should be exposed to topics and views that they have not chosen for themselves,” adding, “I am not making this up.”

McDowell said he was hopeful that the Obama administration understands the Fairness Doctrine and will not let it be reinstated.