Lawmakers Reject Fairness Doctrine

Published September 1, 2007

Abandoned some 20 years ago, the “Fairness Doctrine”–requiring public and privately owned broadcasters to provide airtime to opposing political and social viewpoints–briefly reared its head again on Capitol Hill in May and June.

The flap erupted when leading congressional Democrats suggested the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could bring back the disputed policy. Republicans, with substantial bipartisan backing, trounced the idea in a relatively easy legislative maneuver.

James L. Gattuso, a senior research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation, warns the real battle over media regulation has hardly begun and won’t involve the Fairness Doctrine. He maintains a longer-term alternative agenda of liberal lawmakers, activists, and leftists surrounds the charged concerns over media ownership and the calls for “balance” rather than an uninhibited exchange of ideas.

Talk Radio Targeted

“The goal of the reforms is the same as the Fairness Doctrine: to reduce the influence of conservative talk radio,” said Gattuso. “Few on the Left ever seriously thought the Fairness Doctrine could be reinstituted. But the Left has been very active in promoting a number of much more subtle ‘reforms’ meant to alter what broadcasters do and say.”

At press time, Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) had not yet made good on the promised formal submission of legislation ostensibly aimed at AM radio.

During the debate over immigration reform legislation, bill supporters, mostly Democrats, reportedly were incensed that conservative talk show hosts and guests characterized the proposed illegal alien solution (fines and a path to citizenship) as amnesty. This caused Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and others to make statements to the media and at public gatherings essentially calling for the Fairness Doctrine to be reinstated or at least reexamined.

Hinchey and several other Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives had already called for a bill. This build-up brought a swift backlash as broadcasters, columnists, and Internet bloggers lambasted the doctrine as an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech.

Preemptive Strikes

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) led the charge for a preemptive strike against reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. By late June Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN), and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) introduced identical versions of a proposed Broadcaster Freedom Act–H.R. 2905, S. 1748, and S. 1742, respectively–that in about one page of text simply prevented the FCC from repromulgating the Fairness Doctrine.

Although bearing large numbers of co-sponsors, the three proposed bills haven’t come to a vote. In the meantime Pence managed to propose and pass a Fairness Doctrine stopgap in a bill that included FCC funding (H.R. 2829, Financial Services and General Government Appropriations, 2008). Passed by a 309-115 vote, the measure prohibits the FCC from using any funds made available by the act to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine on broadcast licensees.

“While I was pleased with the bipartisan passage of this legislation, we must open a second front to ensure that the Fairness Doctrine can never come back again,” said Pence, urging support for the Broadcaster Freedom Act.

Undefended Ground

Gattuso maintained that although the victory was fast and surprisingly easy, it was a win mostly over undefended ground. “The vote almost certainly means that the long-dead rule will not be revived anytime soon,” he wrote. “That’s good news. In the end, it was the rule’s opponents–not its supporters–who took the offensive.

“The vote was decisive,” Gattuso continued. “A majority of Democrats joined with a unanimous Republican caucus to forestall efforts to revive the failed doctrine. Politically, this seems to end any short-term possibility that Congress might reimpose a Fairness Doctrine. With so many members now on record opposing the rule, it would take a political Frankenstein to raise the doctrine from the regulatory grave in this Congress.”

Frank Barbetta ([email protected]) writes from Little Falls, New Jersey.