Republican Reps Ask FCC to Officially Scrap Fairness Doctrine

Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Greg Walden (R- Ore.), the chairs of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and Communications Subcommittee, respectively, have asked the FCC to get the fairness doctrine and a couple of their corollaries off the books, pointing to President Obama's directive earlier this year to federal agencies to review outdated regs still on the books.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the legislators give the FCC until the end of the week (June 3) to confirm that it will remove the doctrine and corollaries from the Code of Federal Regulations.

The issue came up after Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell pointed out in a speech that, although the FCC ruled back in 1987 that the doctrine was unconstitutional and unenforceable, the doctrine remained in the Code of Federal Regulations, which meant essentially it was teed up if a future commission decided to enforce it.

McDowell suggested that it was high time to take it off the books, and the Republican legislators agree.

The doctrine required TV stations to air controversial issues of public importance and seek out opposing viewpoints. Also still on the books are corollaries to the doctrine providing for free response time for personal attacks and providing equal time for other candidates if a station endorsed a candidate in an editorial. The corollaries were repealed by the FCC in 2000.

The chairman has said he has not interest in reinstating the doctrine, and the President has echoed that sentiment. But it has remained a perceived threat to some Republicans, particular given that some powerful Democrats in Congress, including Senate Communication Subcommittee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), have in the past suggested it should be revived as a counter to conservative talk radio, whose rise coincided with the doctrine's demise ("We take FCC Chairman Genachowski at his word that he has no interest in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine. However, it would seem to make sense to formerly rid the Federal Code of a rule that has long been outdated and unnecessary.").

The letter from Upton and Walden, the latter a former broadcaster himself--quotes the chairman as telling Rep. Walden in July 2009 that he did not support reinstatement and thought the FCC should not be censoring political speech. Given that, said the reps, combined with the President's executive order on clearing out outdated regs--the FCC as an independent agency is not subject to the directive, but Genachowski has said the FCC supports it and is reviewing its regs--they suggest getting rid of the doctrine and corollaries is an "easy place to start" given that "the FCC has already abandoned them based on principles you say you continue to support."

"We take FCC Chairman Genachowski at his word that he has no interest in bringing back the Fairness Doctrine," said National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton. "However, it would seem to make sense to formally rid the Federal Code of a rule that has long been outdated and unnecessary."

An FCC spokesperson was checking at press time on what the process for doing that would be.

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.