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GOP Dredges Up Fairness Doctrine

Like one of those zombies from Night of the Living Dead, the supposed return of the Fairness Doctrine refuses to die and continues to lumber along. This time, the issue has been revived by newly empowered Republicans in the House who could make it part of the upcoming budget debate.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) threw down the gauntlet last week with some red meat rhetoric at a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters in Nashville. That is in addition to Republican efforts to defund the Federal Communications Commission’s chief diversity officer post because they see its initial occupant, Mark Lloyd, as a foe of conservative media, based on past writings.

Boehner was preaching to the choir in Nashville when he railed against what he sees as government trying to define for the media what is fair and balanced. Religious broadcasters have frequently invoked the Fairness Doctrine as a possible curb on their freedom to speak out from the electronic pulpit on issues like abortion or homosexuality.

The doctrine, which was deemed unconstitutional by the FCC in 1987, required broadcasters to actively seek out opposing viewpoints on issues of national importance. The fall of the doctrine is credited with the rise of conservative talk, along with a flood of crusading TV-station editorials broadcasters at the time argued were being suppressed by the doctrine.

President Obama has repeatedly indicated—including to this magazine during his campaign—that he has no interest in reviving the doctrine, a point echoed by his former Harvard Law School classmate and friend, FCC Chairman Juilius Genachowski. But that has yet to put a stake in the heart of the issue.

With the occasional Democrat still invoking the doctrine as a possible check on conservative talkers, and with Republicans firmly in control of the House, look for the issue to get some action, rather than just talk, on the House side of the Hill.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the former radio station owner who is now chairman of the Communications & Internet Subcommittee, introduced a bill in the last Congress along with Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), himself a former talk radio host, that would prevent the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

Boehner referred last week to a legislative effort by Walden and Pence to keep the airwaves “free,” adding: “I expect the House to act on this measure.” The pair introduced a bill in the last Congress to block reimposition of the doctrine by the FCC. Asked whether they would reintroduce the bill in this Congress, possibly as an amendment on a stopgap appropriations bill (continuing resolution) or the appropriations bill itself, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel would only ironically say: “Stay tuned.”

Free Press, the nonprofit media reform organization, is ready to tune out talk of the doctrine.

“There is no serious discussion in Washington about reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, a policy that was eliminated years before Speaker Boehner became a member of Congress,” said Free Press President Josh Silver said last week.

Silver is concerned about Boehner’s characterization of the doctrine as part of a broader government effort, in concert with new network neutrality rules, to regulate free and open communications. In contrast to the doctrine, the FCC has actually adopted network neutrality regs; but the commission argues those are to provide regulatory certainty and promote, not stifle, open communications.

Fred Upton (R-Mich.), House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman, also raised the specter of the doctrine, telling broadcasters in a speech that if the FCC’s net neutrality rules were allowed to stand, the commission could be empowered to do other things like impose the doctrine or get in the middle of retrans disputes.

House Republicans have also opened something of a separate front on the Fairness Doctrine. As part of the stopgap appropriations bill passed two weeks ago in the House, they defunded the position of FCC Chief Diversity Officer Mark Lloyd, who ran afoul of Republican legislators, including Walden, due to past writings critical of conservative talk radio. Lloyd has also said he is not out to restore the doctrine or to carry out a “secret plot” to rid the airwaves of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or “any other conservative talk show host.”

But in the House vote to approve the amendment on the appropriations bill, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who introduced the bill, took to the House floor to brand the chief diversity officer post a “Fairness Doctrine czar” and a threat to free speech.

Republican leaders are actually looking to protect both flanks, trying to insure that broadcasters have no government-defined obligation to be fair and balanced, while at the same time trying to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which they have long seen as a vehicle for their liberal critics.

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