Some in Congress Push for Reinstatement of Fairness Doctrine

A license permits broadcasting, but the licensee has no constitutional right to be the one who holds the license or to monopolize a…frequency to the exclusion of his fellow citizens. There is nothing in the First Amendment which prevents the Government from requiring a licensee to share his frequency with others…. It is the right of the viewers and listeners, not the right of the broadcasters, which is paramount.

— U.S. Supreme Court, upholding the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, 1969. (The Fairness Doctrine: How We Lost it, and Why We Need it Back, by Steve Rendall)

The L.A.Times recently published this story on the effort to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to give equal air time to opposing views. The FCC stopped the practice in 1987, which many believe triggered the explosive growth of political talk radio.

The FCC enacted the Fairness Doctrine in 1949 to ensure the "right of the public

to be informed" by presenting "for acceptance or rejection the different

attitudes and viewpoints" on controversial issues. The policy was upheld in 1969

by the Supreme Court because the public airwaves were a "scarce resource" that

needed to be open to opposing views.

Broadcasters disliked the rule,

which put their federal station license at risk if they didn't air all sides of

an issue. Michael Harrison, who hosted a weekend talk show on the former KMET-FM

in Los Angeles from 1975 to 1985, said the policy kept him from giving his

opinions on controversial topics.

"I would never say that liberals were good and conservatives were bad, or vice versa. We would talk about, "Hey, all politicians are bad," or "It's a shame that more people don't vote," said Harrison, who publishes Talkers magazine, which covers the talk radio industry. "It was more of a superficial approach to politics."

The Fairness Doctrine ended during the Reagan administration. In a 1985 report, the FCC concluded the policy inhibited broadcasters from dealing with controversial issues and was no longer needed because of the growth of cable television.

"Many, many broadcasters testified they avoided issues they thought would involve them in complaints," recalled Dennis Patrick, who was chairman of the FCC in 1987 when it repealed the policy. "The commission concluded that the doctrine was having a chilling effect."

The decision was controversial. Congress passed a law in 1987 reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, but Reagan vetoed it.

Shortly afterward, Rush Limbaugh, then a little-known Sacramento disc jockey, emerged

as a conservative voice on radio stations nationwide. Another failed

congressional attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in 1993 was dubbed the

"Hush Rush" bill.

A 1997 study in the Journal of Legal Studies found that

the percentage of AM radio stations with a news, talk or public affairs format

jumped to 28% in 1995 from 7% in 1987.

 

The Senate recently defeated an effort to block the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.

"Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with the problem," said

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). And Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and

John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said they favored restoring the Fairness

Doctrine.

 

However, similar legislation did not fare so well in the House. Last month Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former radio talk show host, proposed an

amendment prohibiting the FCC from spending money to

reimpose the Fairness Doctrine. It passed 309 to 11.

But Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) said the rest of the media

presented a balanced view of controversial issues, and the Fairness

Doctrine would simply reimpose that requirement on talk radio.

Hinchey is readying legislation to reinstitute the doctrine as part of a broad package of media ownership reforms.

"It's important that the American people make decisions for themselves

based upon the ability to garner all the information, not just on what

somebody wants to give them," he said.