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In an attempt to lessen the impact of so-called conservative talk radio, a New York congresswoman is leading an effort to re-establish the “Fairness Doctrine” for radio and television broadcasters in the United States.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Fairness Doctrine – which said broadcasters had to provide “equal time” to opponents of political views expressed on the public airwaves – ruled the radio and TV industries.

Imposed originally by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine was ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. Court of Appeals in 1986. The court found the rule was not a law but only a regulation, so it could be rescinded by the FCC – which it was. President Reagan vetoed a 1987 attempt by Congress to make the policy law.

In 1993, Congress unsuccessfully attempted to re-institute the rule. At the time, talk-radio giant Rush Limbaugh rallied his supporters to help defeat the effort, which he dubbed the “Hush Rush” bill.

Despite the failed campaign in ’93, Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., is confident she can shepherd the Fairness Doctrine through Congress this year, once again requiring broadcasters to provide “equal time.”

A website dedicated to resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine is collecting signatures from Americans who support Slaughter’s bill, H.R. 501, or the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act, which was introduced Feb. 1 and has 12 co-sponsors.

“Since [1987], the country has experienced a proliferation of highly partisan news outlets that disseminate unbalanced news coverage,” says a statement on the site. “Democracy is built on the idea that the views, beliefs and values of an informed citizenry provide the best basis for political decision-making.”

Complains the petition: “News consumers, particularly those of talk radio, are overwhelmingly exposed to a single point of view. A survey conducted by Democracy Radio this year revealed that 90 percent of all broadcast hours on talk radio are fairly characterized as conservative.”

That preponderance of right-wing voices has motivated Slaughter and others to call for the Fairness Doctrine to be put into place again, hoping it will give government-mandated time to more left-wing broadcasters.

Even so, the website claims it is not an ideological fight, but a process “by which the public is returned to the table of media policymaking.”

States the site: “The Fairness Doctrine is fundamentally about making sure broadcasters uphold the social contract they have made in exchange for the free use of billions of dollars worth of the public airwaves. The first provision in the doctrine requires broadcasters to cover important issues. The second provision calls for balance. It’s hard to argue against the people’s right to be informed about important debates and to hear all points of view. …

“It’s not a pre-emptive tool for censorship. It’s not a tool that favors one political perspective over another. Historically, it was applied sparingly – not to punish broadcasters, but to promote better public service media.”

Slaughter’s bill requires broadcast licensees to hold two “public hearings” every year to “ascertain the needs and interests of the communities they are licensed to serve.”

Also, the bill states, “All broadcast licensees must document and report in writing on a biannual basis to the FCC how they have covered the ascertained issues of public importance, and how their coverage reflects the diverse interests and viewpoints in their community.”

A station that fails to live up to the regulation is subject to sanctions and fines by the FCC, including possible revocation of the broadcaster’s license.

Any “interested party” can file a request for the revocation of a specific license on the grounds that the broadcaster failed to “afford reasonable opportunities for presentation of opposing points of view on issues of public importance in its overall programming. …”

Fairness Doctrine proponents are decidedly anti-broadcaster, saying the media have betrayed the public trust.

“When broadcasters are left to their own devices, the public loses,” says a statement on the pro-Fairness Doctrine website. “Although media outlets have proliferated with the growth of cable and the Internet, the fact is that most are owned by the same handful of media giants that also own most of the mainstream radio and television stations. This massive consolidation within media over the past two decades has severely damaged the quality of news coverage in this country.”

The bill cites a study done by a group that is joining the effort to bring back the regulation, Democracy Radio:

“[A] 2004 survey, done by Democracy Radio, found that there were 2,349 hours of local conservative programs broadcast every week versus 555 hours of local progressive programs, and 39,382 hours of national conservative programs broadcast every week versus 2,487 hours of national progressive programs.”

Christian broadcasters are concerned about the possibility of the Fairness Doctrine again going into effect.

National Religious Broadcasters President Frank Wright told a convention of the organization last month that if equal time had to be given to opponents of Christianity, “it could be the end of Christian broadcasting as we know it,” CBN News reported.

When the House of Representatives debated and passed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act in February, Slaughter and some other Democrats took the opportunity to push for the Fairness Doctrine.

Said Slaughter on the House floor: “When newspeople present political opinion as hard news with no accountability or fact for truth, I call that indecent. When it becomes common practice to pay members of the media to deceptively advocate a political agenda on public airwaves without disclosure to the public, I call that indecent.”

Slaughter’s staff failed to return multiple calls seeking comment.

Related column:

Fairness Doctrine threatens freedom of speech


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