Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin this week blamed the FCC, or at least a former Republican commission, for much of the current partisan incivility.
Debate over the so-called Fairness Doctrine was renewed at a Senate Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing Thursday (May 17) when Manchin (W.Va.) quizzed FCC chairman Ajit Pai on the issue.
Democrats have occasionally signaled a desire to restore the doctrine as a weapon against conservative talk radio, but Manchin signaled he did not think there was the political will to bring it back.
While the doctrine was generally thought of as a broadcast-related rule, it also affected cable operators to the extent that they originated their own programming. That was not much of an issue back in 1987, when the doctrine was last enforced. But should a new FCC or Congress revive it, the proliferation of cable news origination could bring the wired world into play as well.
Pai said if Congress could find a way to legislate civility, he and the country would be better off for it, but left the impression, one not disabused by his office after the fact, that he was talking about generally wishing for more civil discourse -- given the unrelenting attacks on him during the net-neutrality debate -- rather than endorsing a statutory return of a doctrine he has long opposed.
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The Fairness Doctrine was the FCC policy scrapped as unconstitutional in 1987 by the FCC under then Republican chairman Dennis Patrick -- it was never a legislative mandate -- that required broadcasters to offer airtime to opposing sides on issues of national importance.
Its sunsetting during the Reagan Administration -- the President vetoed a Democratic legislative attempt to restore the doctrine -- coincided with the rise of conservative political talk radio, whose practitioners included the current Vice President, Mike Pence, who has long fought against the doctrine's return.
The hearing was wrapping up when Manchin interrupted the closing comments of subcommittee chairman Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) to ask if he could say something more.
That something was suggesting that the current "toxicity" in the political arena could be traced to the doctrine's demise. He said that the "how can we destroy each other" mentality was not who legislators really were.
Manchin said he had talked with a former senator who had been around before and after the doctrine and cited the doctrine repeal as the turning point for divisiveness. Manchin said that up until that time, the radio and TV shows had provided both sides. "Everything had to be equal."
Manchin said something had to be done to save the country from "destroying itself," suggesting legislators were actually all good friends, but were being pushed apart.
Pai pointed out that he knows Patrick, as well as Patrick's predecessor, Republican chairman Mark Fowler, who introduced the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to scrap the doctrine.
Pai, who has been the object of racist attacks and threats to himself and his family over his stand on net neutrality -- attacks coming from the left, not the right -- said he probably knew more than most "about the toxicity of the political environment right now."
Pai said that while he might agree with the symptom, "I'm not sure about the cause, for a variety of different reasons. First, under the First Amendment there are substantial questions about whether the government should get involved in mediating that kind of public discourse and, when it comes to the FCC in particular, there are issues when the FCC intrudes upon content regulation, deciding, "OK, this is too far, this is not."
Pai famously pushed back on an FCC "critical needs study" proposed under a Democratic chair that sought to find out why local stations covered certain news stories. The idea was to build a record on viewpoint diversity "to identify and eliminate market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications services and information services." But Pai, and others, saw it as the FCC inserting itself into content calls that should be left to stations, with intimations of a Fairness Doctrine by proxy thrown in.
Pai also told Manchin that with the onset of digital, where the attacks on Pai over net neutrality have come, "even if the FCC wanted to, and could under the constitution do so, I'm not sure it would be wise to have bureaucrats in Washington sitting in judgment about who is allowed to take a position in the public square."
Pai said he did "share the aspiration for more civil discourse," but said he did not think there was an FCC-led solution, though he added "If you can legislate that, I think I and the Republic would be better for it."
Manchin said he did not think there was the political will for that, and Lankford stepped in to second that.
Lankford said the best thing Congress could do was "model" better behavior rather than legislate it. He said the problem with having a conversation about the Fairness Doctrine is where that leads: "At some point somebody's got to say: 'That's a conservative thought, or that's a liberal thought,' which would wind up with someone in D.C. monitoring how many conservative things were said, and how many liberal things were said, and trying to find that balance."
“The Fairness Doctrine was a pernicious policy long opposed by NRB," said National Religious Broadcasters President Jerry Johnson of the Hill exchange. "The FCC, under both Republican and Democrat leadership, was right to stop and then purge it. I would welcome the opportunity to be of assistance to Senator Manchin in exploring the dangers of that doctrine, and I encourage him and all Members of Congress to keep that slayed beast in its coffin where it belongs.”
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.
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