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Will: Obama Victory Would Bring Fairness Doctrine Back

The return of the Fairness Doctrine continues to be invoked as an argument against giving Democrats more control of the government.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post Thursday, conservative columnist George Will warned that "unless [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] is president, the government will reinstate the … misnamed Fairness Doctrine."

The doctrine, which was pronounced unconstitutional by the Federal Communications Commission in 1987, required broadcasters to cover both sides of controversial issues. Its decline was matched by the rise of rough-and-tumble political talk radio and the vast majority conservative, led by Rush Limbaugh.

Will sees that format threatened by a Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) administration teamed with a Democratic-controlled Congress, arguing instead for the benefits of divided government. "Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservative dominance," he wrote.

Obama, via his press secretary, told B&C in June that the candidate does not support reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine and sees the issue as "a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible."

But more recently, a campaign surrogate told a C-SPAN TV audience Obama had not taken a position on the doctrine. In addition, a source in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told B&C in July that he could not rule out a push from House Democrats to bring it back, either in this Congress or the next.

Obama’s lack of active support does not necessarily equate to a veto if the bill were pushed by his Democratic friends in the Senate.

President George W. Bush pledged to veto any attempt to legislatively establish the Fairness Doctrine, and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told B&C in an interview last fall that there were no plans to try to bring it back.

A little over one year ago, the House passed a bill, from Indiana Republican and former radio talker Mike Pence, which put a one-year moratorium on funding any FCC reimposition of the doctrine. Democrats, led by David Obey (D-Wis.), suggested that the amendment was a red herring, a nonissue and that it was being debated, such as it was -- no Democrats stood to oppose it -- to provide sound bites for conservative talkers and "yap yap TV," which had ginned up the issue.

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.