Q&A: NRB’s Frank Wright Sees Fairness Doctrine As Credible Threat

When the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) conference gets underway in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday, look for hundreds of faith-based broadcasters to warn their viewers and listeners about the return of the fairness doctrine.

NRB president Frank Wright considers the re-imposition of the defunct broadcasting policy—which the FCC discarded as unconstitutional in 1987, thus clearing the way for the explosion in conservative talk radio—a credible threat under the Obama administration.

NRB represents 1,400 organizations, from Billy Graham to Focus on the Family, as well as TV and radio stations and some cable programmer members. Invoking the image of David taking on Goliath, the association recently said that it was "girding itself for a major battle over broadcasting freedoms," and was prepared to go to court, lobby Congress, or take its message to the public.

In the days before the conference, Wright spoke with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about the fairness doctrine, among other. He doesn't see much hope in stopping a congressional push for the doctrine but suggests he has other rocks in his sling. And while combating the doctrine will be on the agenda in Nashville, Wright says NRB plans to do more than just talk.

In a recent statement, NRB sounded a little like David preparing to go up against Goliath and talked about an "girding itself for a major battle over broadcasting freedoms, including the fairness doctrine and hate crimes legislation?

We have talked before about many of these issues, but now, with the shift in the political landscape, I think these same things have a much higher probability of being enacted or at least having legislation and hearings and debates, and on the regulation side at the FCC.

So what are your key legislative and regulatory concerns?

The fairness doctrine has a tremendous potential for constraining free speech, but hate crimes has the potential of criminalizing it. In the short run, the fairness doctrine has the immediate threat of being applied to Christian broadcasters and to the church in a very deleterious way. Hate crimes legislation, if that is enacted, will evolve over time and bleed over into speech and have a negative effect, but not right away. The fairness doctrine will have a negative impact the day it is implemented.

And we can expect religious broadcasters to speak out against the doctrine?

Yes, you can, and not only to speak out but engage in the political and legal process on behalf of our members. The fairness doctrine has been sitting in dormant status on the Hill for years. Every year, Democrats have filed a fairness doctrine bill to reinstate it by statute that hasn't gone anywhere when Congress was controlled by the Republicans, and now it seems to be a pretty high priority.

Fairness doctrine implementation would have an enormous deleterious effect on our members because the burden of remedying the complaint is on the broadcaster. They had to go out and find the opposing viewpoint to air.

I have had a number of conversations with NRB members who operated under the old fairness doctrine regime. What happens is there is a chilling of free speech because the license-holder tends to take off the air the progammer whose content is deemed to be controversial.

Democrats say talk about the doctrine is a red herring. They have no plans to reinstate it, the president doesn't, and that this flap has been ginned up by talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.

[House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi is considered somewhat influential and you can read her statements on the fairness doctrine. If they are going to call it a red herring they will have to ignore the statements of their own members seated in the Congress today who said the exact opposite.

The notion that there is some problem out there that needs to be resolved in the marketplace that can be fixed by government-controlled speech I think is very disturbing. And, by they way, the fairness doctrine can return not just by legislation but by regulation. It was a regulation to start with, repealed by the FCC.

And we have a personal concern. The only radio station that ever lost its license under the fairness doctrine regime was a Christian radio station in Red Lion, Pa. We are only responding now to the statements the Democrats themselves are making.

You say you will go to court if need be?

That is the logical next step for us in terms of trying to defend our members.

And you think an Obama FCC would reinstate it?

Yes, I do think so. Let the FCC do it and give cover to the elected officials who don't have to then pass legislation to enact it. It was repealed by a majority vote. It can be reinstated by a majority vote.

Will this be an issue at the convention?

Yes. I don't want to tip our hands on strategy except to say that 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 bring enough heat to get them to see the light, so to speak. I don't think we can stop it in the House or Senate.

We will be talking about that at our convention, because it will take a response by all of our members and all of their listeners. I will be a major initiative to develop and prepare for a fairness doctrine response.

And that includes the electronic pulpit.

Yes, to the extent that broadcasters who produce programs that may be church-based will speak to the issue to their listeners.

NRB appears to feel that some of the FCC's proposed localism initiatives might be the fairness doctrine in sheep's clothing, as it were.

I think that there are some folks being disingenuous about their fairness doctrine views. And I think to the extent that his representatives remarks represent President Obama's views, it is possible he is being disingenuous about it. That is to say that he is opposed to the fairness doctrine, but then his spokesman went on to detail changes at the FCC that they'd like to see, which is nothing more than fairness doctrine by other means, such as the establishment of community advisory boards.

You used Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh as examples. So, for the sake of argument, if you as a local broadcaster have a community advisory board and your community advisory board says we don't think you ought to carry Rush Limbaugh. Then, when your license renewal comes around, your license is in jeopardy because you didn't follow the dictates of the community advisory board. And statements that President Obama's spokesman made about license-holders being more diverse can be read as political diversity. So there are a number of things about localism that have the appearance of looking like the fairness doctrine without the name.

While fairness doctrine in the minds of the president, and perhaps many of the leaders of the Democratic Party, may be focused on leveling the playing field of political speech, it has enormous implications for religious free speech.

What is religious broadcasters’ problem with hate-crimes legislation?

There is nobody in the NRB that is in favor of hate, but the other side has somewhat successfully redefined traditional Jewish and Christian and Muslim values as being hate-inspired.

When our members preach and teach from the bible, they teach it as they find it. They don't edit it to inject something that is not there.... But it in the political world in which we live, any comments against the homosexual lifestyle have been successfully characterized by much of the media as being hateful, and hate-inspired, and it is not.

The president has talked about favoring technological solutions over government regulation in terms of media content. Are ratings and content-blocking and the V-chip sufficient?

We're certainly supporters of the notion of giving parents the tools to deal with these things, but I don't think they are sufficient by themselves. But you can't run away from a fight unharmed after someone has already punched you in the nose. When you have been exposed to indecency, the damage is done. And we're talking about children here. We're not talking about the Church Lady who doesn't like what she sees on television.

I think the tools are great. We agree with the president to that extent, but there has always been a compelling government interest to protect children by stepping in when there are egregious violations, and I still think that remains an important role of the FCC.

Click here to read Frank Wright’s comments on cable a la carte at www.multichannel.com.

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.