Fairness Doctrine Still Kicking

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps may have wished to drive a stake deep into the Fairness Doctrine issue. However, his recent comments on the subject have only helped keep it alive and kicking.

In a speech two weeks ago, Copps said the doctrine was long gone and not coming back. If he had stopped there, he might have put some criticism to rest, though certainly not all of it. However, he went on to characterize critics linking the doctrine to pending localism proposals as “issue mongers” and “conspiracy theorists [who] see [the doctrine] lurking behind every corner.”

As it turns out, some of those theorists are broadcast attorneys who see the localism proposals as just such a back-door effort, with perhaps even greater content-control implications than the doctrine itself. And since the speech, Copps has also been called out by both Media Research Center President Brent Bozell and Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters.

So much for assuaging critics' concerns.

The doctrine, which required broadcasters both to actively cover issues of public importance and to seek out opposing viewpoints on such issues, has become something of a political football in the past few years. Democrats raised the specter of its return, much to the displeasure of conservative radio talk show hosts and some Republican legislators.

And despite President Obama's statements to this magazine that he is not interested in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine, it continues to concern broadcasters. It has gained new currency of late with FCC proposals to boost localism; these include creating community advisory boards that stations would have to consult with to determine what type of public interest programming they'd need to put on.

Combine that with the Obama administration's pledge to make programming diversity a priority communications policy issue, and Copps' passion about the doctrine, and you have a potent brew keeping it alive and current.

Waiting for Genachowski

Copps has said he can't characterize how his successor, Julius Genachowski, will address the diversity issue, but has in effect advised him to make the localism initiative—proposed as part of the FCC's media-ownership rule revision of December 2007—his first priority. That worries NRB chief Wright, who told Copps in a letter that his members could support both minorities and women and still be “wary” about diversity initiatives that might affect broadcast content.

Wright associated NRB with others who are concerned that FCC “diversity” initiatives (NRB puts diversity in quotes) could be a Fairness Doctrine in disguise: “Whether such control is called the 'Fairness Doctrine,' or masked by some other name, is irrelevant. We do not want any broadcasters [religious, secular minority, etc.] to be subject to a heavy-handed system of federal regulation that is fraught with problems and oblivious to the benefits of a reasonably free market.”

Wright added that NRB and others have concerns about keeping the government from issuing revised media-ownership rules that could “decrease conservative” or traditional values in media content, and increase liberal or “progressive programming.”

Wright told B&C in February that he feared there was a “credible threat” that the doctrine could return, and that his members are ready to put major pressure on the commission if it tries to do so. “If the approach taken by the administration is an FCC approach, we believe we can bring enough pressure to bear on the commission at the point of enactment to get them to see the light,” he said.

One veteran communications attorney who asked to speak on background took issue with characterizing the “localism” initiatives as Fairness Doctrine lite, suggesting they could be even more constricting on content than the doctrine itself. “Localism isn't Fairness lite,” he said. “Why have government oversight program-by-program when you can set up a regime to oversee them all?”

The attorney called the doctrine a sideshow, “both by ditto-heads [Rush Limbaugh fans] and by those on the left who claim to be shocked, shocked that anyone would suggest they want to impose such a doctrine.”

Another veteran First Amendment attorney said that the doctrine per se won't be back. He said it would be like a hot poker to both the right wing and religious broadcasters: “The Obama administration has done a pretty good job of splitting up the evangelical movement. Why would he throw it away for that?”

But he also said that despite Copps' protestations, the localism initiative could be problematic for broadcast speech: “Last year's localism decision, both the advisory boards and the programming forms, are a not-very-thinly-veiled Fairness Doctrine. But not just fairness. It is the commission determining the content of programming. Oh, yes, that is very high on the administration's agenda.”

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John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.