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Bush Advisor Warns Against Re-Instating Fairness Doctrine

The Bush administrations top telecommunications policy adviser warned against the return of the Fairness Doctrine in a speech Thursday, saying it would be a "u-turn" on the road to a more diverse media marketplace.

Meredith Attwell Baker, acting head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, told a Media Institute luncheon audience that it would be a mistake to reinstate the doctrine, which required broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues. She said the doctrine was "rightly laid upon the scrap heap of media history more than 20 years ago."

The doctrine's demise helped give rise to conservative talk radio, whose practitioners are concerned that a Democratically controlled government would move to silence their sometimes strident, sometimes extremely personal, criticisms.

Baker said that in the intervening 20 years, "the variety and the diversity of information sources available to consumers has grown exponentially." She pointed out that broadcasting now competes with a host of delivery mechanisms. "As a result there is little need for government to mandate, and more importantly to enforce balance on any one outlet."

Asked after the speech why she had gone out of her way to address the doctrine issue, Baker said: "Part of my job is not just being in charge of the digital transition, but to also advise on other issues that are out there. I think that we still hear from the Hill, as agendas are getting set, that is on the list of things" people are looking at.

Baker was delivering something of a valedictory address, given that she says she has not been asked to stay on by the new administration. Unless that status changes, she would be exiting when Obama administration takes over and before the DTV transition date of Feb. 17, 2009.

NTIA oversees the DTV-to-analog converter box subsidy program. Baker has gotten bipartisan praise for her handling of the transition and, though she indicated months ago that she planned to leave--after the Bush administration signaled it was not planning to take the "acting" from in front of her name--she has stayed on to shepherd that process.

Baker again encouraged everyone to apply for their subsidies by the end of the year so they can "buy and try" them before the Feb. 17 date. That's given the approximately six-week turn-around from application to installation.

Commerce sources say they are encouraged that President-Elect Obama "isn’t looking in his rearview mirror and that he opposes reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine."

President-elect Barack Obama has told B&C twice through a top aide, including as recently as last month that he has no interest in bringing the doctrine back, but the same apparently cannot be said for other powerful Democrats including Schumer. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has not ruled it out, either.