Editorial: It’s Baack?!

We would have bet cash money that we had heard the last of the periodic Fairness Doctrine alarms when the FCC finally took it off the books officially in 2011, thanks in part to the dogged determination of then-commissioner Robert McDowell.

The doctrine required broadcasters to actively seek out and offer airtime to the other side of a controversial issue if they gave airtime to one side. It had not been enforced since 1987, but was still on the books. Republicans long feared it would be invoked by Democrats looking to crack down on conservative talkers, especially since Democrats had periodically invoked it in an effort to do just that.

Now the cry has gone up again, from House Communications Subcommittee members who don’t like the sound of the FCC’s planned study of “critical information needs” of communities.

We don’t think either past FCC chairman Julius Genachowski or former acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn had that in mind when they proposed the study and advanced the process, respectively. It is currently in the field-test stage.

The stated goal of the test was to come up with the methodology the commission could use in other markets to determine whether the critical information needs of communities are being met, and if they are not, whether that supports regulations to lower barriers to entry for women and small businesses—which often include minorities— who could meet those needs.

“It is necessary to understand how the public acquires critical information, how the media ecosystem operates to provide this information and what barriers exist to participation,” the proposal states. A laudable goal, certainly, but the FCC needs to tread carefully.

Citing the research design model released last May, the legislators say the content analysis smacks of “Fairness Doctrine 2.0” language. We don’t agree, but we can see where they were coming from. A government study that seeks info from cable and broadcast news channels on story choices and potential bias is bound to raise some eyebrows. The FCC needs to quickly lower them with assurances about why the study needs to be structured as it has been and how the information will be used.

Or, in other words, it’s time to put another stake in the spectre of the Fairness Doctrine.