Senate Slips in Fairness Doctrine Prohibition

(Feb. 27, 2009) WASHINGTON: The Senate has passed a law to ban the resurrection of the Fairness Doctrine requiring broadcasters to provide equal air time for opposing viewpoints. Lawmakers voted Wednesday 87-11 on the ban, tacked as an amendment onto a bill giving D.C. residents representation in the House and Senate.

S.Amdt.573 prevents the FCC from reactivating the Fairness Doctrine, which was dismantled in 1987. It amends the 1934 Communications Act as follows:

“The commission shall not have the authority to prescribe any rule, regulation, policy, doctrine, standard, guideline, or other requirement that has the purpose or effect of reinstating or repromulgating (in whole or in part), the requirement that broadcasters present or ascertain opposing viewpoints on issues of public importance, commonly referred to as the ‘Fairness Doctrine,’… or any similar requirement that broadcasters meet programming quotas or guidelines for issues of public importance.”

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) introduced the amendment, which Democrats supported but noted the superfluity, since a White House aide already stated the President’s opposition. A few Democrats had previously saber-rattled about the Fairness Doctrine, smarting over their treatment by conservative media pundits. None, however, had introduced any type of legislation calling for a return of the Fairness Doctrine.

The bill will now go to the House. 

Fairness Doctrine Non-debate Takes on a Life of Its Own
D.C. think tank issues policy brief on dead pony
(Feb. 25, 2009) WASHINGTON: Even a presidential rejection isn’t enough to keep the Fairness Doctrine down. A Washington think tank this week issued a policy paper on why Congress shouldn’t reinstate the doctrine, which requires equal air time for opposing viewpoints. It was lifted in 1987.

The Fairness Doctrine Distraction,” released by the group Free Press, says it is “untenable to put the federal government in charge of political speech.” Broadcasters agree, and just in case there’s anyone left in Washington, D.C. who believes otherwise, the chief of the National Association of Broadcasters penned a thank you note to President Obama for stating opposition through a spokesman.

“I am writing to express our gratitude to you for the Feb. 18, 2009 White House statement reiterating your view that the Fairness Doctrine should not be reinstated. The nation’s broadcasters appreciate your support of fundamental First Amendment principles…,” NAB chief David Rehr wrote.

Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt told Fox News last week that the president would not support reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, despite Democratic rumblings. Dems, in a bit of a lather over their treatment by conservative radio and TV pundits, started tossing around the words “Fairness Doctrine” last year after wresting control of Capitol Hill. Former President Bill Clinton cranked up the volume a couple of weeks ago when he openly called for a return of the Fairness Doctrine or something like it.

For all the chatter, the Fairness Doctrine is nothing but. No bills have been introduced to bring it back; only bills to prohibit its reinstatement.

“We encourage the congress and the administration to leave the debate over the Fairness Doctrine in the past and pursue policies that have sound legal, economic, and public interest footing,” Free Press’s Josh Silver and Marvin Ammouri wrote. “There is much that could be done to promote speech in our media marketplace--but the Fairness Doctrine is just a distraction.

Obama Won't Support Fairness Doctrine
White House sends definitive message
Feb. 20, 2009) WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will not support a revival of the Fairness Doctrine, a White House spokesman told Wednesday.

“As the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated,” Ben LaBolt told the news outlet. The statement came after a senior White House aide said it would be up to the president and Julius Genachowski, “our new head of the FCC,” the first official mention of the president’s choice to head the commission.

The Fairness Doctrine is a relic from the’50s that required broadcast outlets to provide equal time for opposing views on controversial subjects. It was abandoned in the late 1980s because of the proliferation of media outlets.

Democrats have taken up the mantra in response to the perceived impact of right-wing radio commentary. Several Democrats have called for a reinstatement of the doctrine, including former President Bill Clinton during a radio interview last week. Despite the chatter, no bills resembling the Fairness Doctrine have been introduced on Capitol Hill. The only bill related to the subject is one to forever prohibit the Fairness Doctrine, but it’s been cycled to a committee file drawer.

Seasoned Washington observers note that bandying about the Fairness Doctrine is likely a maneuver to get unseen concessions on another topic, or just to tone down the screeching rhetoric that often dominates what passes for press coverage. Both parties realize that a Fairness Doctrine will cut both ways, potentially rendering the entire media marketplace to a din of hip-shooting hysterics.

Fairness Doctrine Talk Floats
Verbiage has yet to be backed by a bill
(Feb. 13, 2009) WASHINGTON: Reports of a resurrected Fairness Doctrine continue to persist. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, is reported to have advocated for legislation resembling the doctrine, which once required equal air time for contrasting opinions on controversial issues. It was lifted in the late 1980s, but Democrats have been bandying about a reinstatement after eight years of getting pulverized by conservative media commentators.

As if to underscore the irony, FoxNews.comreported that Stabenow expected hearings on reviving the doctrine to begin “soon,” while The New York Timesreported the same day that she wasn’t going there. Stabenow, who’s married to Democracy Radio founder Tom Athans, doesn’t sit on any Senate committees that would conceivably hold hearings on the doctrine, most notably, Commerce. She serves on Energy, Finance, Agriculture and the Budget committees.

Other Dems, notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, and Tom Harkin of Iowa, have voice support for reinstating the doctrine.

Former President Bill Clinton did as much in a radio interview with Mario Solis-Marich.

“You either ought to have the Fairness Doctrine or more balance on the other side, because essentially… there’s always been a lot big money to support the right-wing talk shows,” Clinton told Solis-Marich. “… and let’s face it, Rush Limbaugh’s pretty entertaining, even when he’s saying things that I think are ridiculous….but basically, with the future of the country hanging in the balance, we shouldn’t be playing petty politics or just going for entertainment.

“So what I think we need to do is either have more balance in the program or have some opportunity for people to offer a countervailing opinion. When the Fairness Doctrine was done away with, I was not in favor of doing away with it, and at the time, frankly, people thought there were more liberal than conservative voices. But if you only have one side, like this blatant drum-beat against the stimulus program, this doesn’t reflect the economic reality we’re facing, and it’s an example of why we need more debate and not less. And if you only hear one side on the radio, that’s pretty tough.”

Despite all the talk, no bills to revive the Fairness Doctrine have been introduced on Capitol Hill. In fact, the only bill related to the doctrine is one to prevent it from ever being reinstated.

Reps. Mike Pence and Greg Walden and Sens. Jim DeMint and John Thune, all Republicans, introduced the Broadcaster Freedom Act of 2009 in early January. It was referred to commerce committee and where it has died in previous iterations.

The doctrine was subject to Supreme Court scrutiny in the 1969 Red Lion case, when a unanimous bench supported the concept. Justice Byron White wrote then, “There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others.”

But both judicial and media environments have changed since then, and the policy continues the subject of much debate in broadcast and legal circles.

 (Image of Neumann U87 mic by Michael Rhys)