WASHINGTON – When the House of Representatives voted 309-115 to deny federal funds to implement the Fairness Doctrine, it was seen by some as a stake through the heart of efforts to revive rules requiring broadcasters to provide balance in all views expressed on the air.
However, the enthusiasm expressed for reviving the discarded regulation by Democratic Party leadership, and even some Republicans in the wake of the Senate battle over immigration, almost assure the issue will be resurrected as a campaign issue next year and as a legislative certainty in 2009 should Democrats remain in control of Congress and capture the White House.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a former radio talk-show host, led the charge last week to stop the Federal Communications Commission from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine for broadcasters – sometimes referred to as “the Hush Rush bill,” because of its preoccupation with conservative talk radio as epitomized by nationally syndicated stars Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham.
The House voted overwhelmingly to prohibit federal funds from being used by the FCC to impose the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to balance comment on controversial issues.
“The House affirmed that freedom will continue to reign on the airwaves,” said Pence, who filed the amendment stopping federal funding and introduced another bill to prevent permanently the doctrine from being imposed. “This was a resounding victory for free speech.”
But the measure only prohibits funds from being used for this purpose through 2008. Since it was unlikely President Bush would sign such a bill into law, the threat of implementation prior to 2008 was minimal at best.
The road to implementation in 2009 and beyond, however, remains wide open. Some observers see it as virtually inevitable.
“Unless broadcasters take steps to voluntarily balance their programming, they can expect a return of fairness rules if Democrats keep control of Congress and win the White House next year.” said Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly, a news analyst for NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.
Even Pence acknowledges the continuing threat.
“Although my amendment to the Financial Services Appropriations bill passed, prohibiting any funding to the FCC for the enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine, should it be resurrected, we must keep in mind that it is only a one-year moratorium on funding. While I am pleased that 309 Members of Congress supported this short-term fix, it is my hope that they will continue to stand for freedom of speech by joining me in a long-term solution to the problem by passing the Broadcaster Freedom Act.”
Pence offered that long-term solution June 29 when he introduced the act. The bill would prevent a future Democratic administration from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. But, so far, it has only 111 co-sponsors.
Last Friday, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a presidential candidate, joined with two other Republicans, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Norm Coleman, R-Minn., to introduce the Broadcaster Freedom Act in the upper house.
The Fairness Doctrine, said McCain, “had a chilling affect on free speech, and it is hard to imagine that the American people would support reinstating a policy where the federal government would be required to police the airwaves to ensure differing viewpoints are offered.”
But it is not so hard to imagine for many Democrats and even a few Republicans in Congress – especially those savaged by talk radio over the bruising battle over the Senate’s plan for so-called “comprehensive immigration reform.”
In recent weeks, particularly during that immigration debate, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Trent Lott, R-Miss., John Kerry, D.-Mass., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, have all called for the Fairness Doctrine to be considered or reinstated once again.
As early as February, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., attempted to introduce the Media Ownership Reform Act. MORA’s provisions included regulations that would prohibit consolidation and mass domination of broadcasting groups to serve the public interest. It also included the Fairness Doctrine.
Even though that quiet attempt to bring back the Fairness Doctrine failed, advocates of a more direct approach to reviving it see the potential to debate it openly and successfully in the near future.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
The debate opened up wide following an interview of Feinstein on “Fox News Sunday” by Chris Wallace.
“In my view, talk radio tends to be one-sided. It also tends to be dwelling in hyperbole,” she said. “It’s explosive. It pushes people to, I think, extreme views without a lot of information.”
Pressed by Wallace about whether she is for bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, Feinstein said, “Well, I’m looking at it.”
Following that exchange, others were more direct.
“It’s time to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine,” said Durbin. “I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they’re in a better position to make a decision.”
“I think the Fairness Doctrine ought to be there, and I also think equal time doctrine ought to come back,” he said on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC. “These are the people that wiped out … one of the most profound changes in the balance of the media is when the conservatives got rid of the equal time requirements and the result is that they have been able to squeeze down and squeeze out opinion of opposing views and I think its been a very important transition in the imbalance of our public eye.”
Democratic House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin took a swipe at conservative talk radio, but said he would oppose regulation.
“We ought to let right-wing talk radio go on as they do now,” he said. “Rush and Sean (Hannity) are just about as important in the scheme of things as Paris Hilton, and I would hate to see them gain an ounce of credibility by being forced by a government agency or anybody else to moderate their views enough that they might become modestly influential or respected.”
But Kucinich is determined not to wait until 2009. The Democratic presidential candidate has been named head of a new House domestic policy subcommittee and he plans to hold hearings on media ownership with an eye toward a reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine.
Appearing on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs” program, he said that since the doctrine was scrapped by the FCC, 50 media companies have shrunk to six. Kucinich, who voted against the war in Iraq and does not want to fund the administration’s proposed troop increase, tied the absence of the doctrine and concentration of media to the launch of the war.
“How in the world did we end up in this war in Iraq when one study said that only three news sources that opposed the war were able to get on the air out of 393,” he said. “What does that say? Was there an uninhibited exchange of ideas? I think that this is an opportunity for America to revisit the issue of consolidation of the media. And how it relates to whether the media is serving in the public interest.”
Sen. Trent Lott
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the Fairness Doctrine debate came when former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made harsh comments about talk radio during the immigration debate – a debate in which he found himself on the losing side.
“Talk radio is running America,” he fumed, adding “we have to deal with that problem.”
Later Lott clarified his remarks to suggest the remedy he had in mind was better communication with voters, not governmentally imposed restrictions on free speech. But Lott actually has a history of support for the Fairness Doctrine.
In 1987, he opposed efforts by President Reagan and many of his own Republican colleagues to get it scrapped.
“We have unfairness now even with the Fairness Doctrine,” he said at the time. “Heaven knows what would happen without a Fairness Doctrine.”
The FCC did indeed end the Fairness Doctrine requirements in 1987. First enacted in 1949, the policy mandated that when a broadcast station presented one viewpoint on a controversial public issue, it must also counter with the opposing viewpoint. Repealed by a vote of 4-0, it was concluded the Fairness Doctrine had begun to inhibit political discourse rather than enhance it.
Congress tried to reinstate the doctrine but President Reagan vetoed the attempt. Again in 1991, another attempt to revive the doctrine failed when then-President George H. W. Bush threatened a veto.
Before 1967, the principles that make up the Fairness Doctrine were applied selectively. But that year the doctrine was incorporated into the rules of the FCC. The constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine was initially upheld by the Supreme Court in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC, but a series of later court rulings – Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tormillo and FCC v. League of Women Voters – pushed in the other direction.
From its inception, there was never much doubt about the intent of the Fairness Doctrine – challenging so-called “right-wing” radio talkers, even before there was a Rush Limbaugh.
“Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue,” explained Bill Ruder, the secretary of commerce for President John F. Kennedy.
Maybe the most surprising development in the most recent kerfuffle over the Fairness Doctrine were those in the public eye – including some elected officials – who clearly had no idea what the debate was all about.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio
“Fairness Doctrine – I’m all for it, whatever it is,” he said. “I think everyone should be open to show the other side. That’s what you do every night on Fox. That’s great!”
When Hannity reminded Voinovich the Fairness Doctrine would establish government regulatory bureaucracies to enforce this balance, Voinovich quickly retreated.
“The Fairness Doctrine,” he fidgeted. “Hmmm. Let me think about that one. I haven’t thought too much about that. Come back to that question later.”