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Will Un-'Fairness Doctrine' Haunt Talk Radio?

By John Gizzi
Human Events
January 24, 2007

White House ambivalent on its revival.

As conservatives long feared if Democrats recaptured Congress last year, the “Fairness Doctrine” may return to strictly constrain the media venue that has been most advantageous to the right: talk radio. Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey (N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) recently introduced companion bills known as the Media Ownership Reform Act, which would orchestrate a dramatic re-regulation of the American media marketplace. According to Adam Therier of Techknowledge, the Hinchey-Sanders measure “would reinstate cable-broadcaster cross-ownership regulations that were struck down by the courts and more tightly restrict the number of radio stations a firm can own locally and nationally.”

But the most significant aspect of the Hinchey-Sanders bill would be its resurrection of what Thierer calls “the hideously misnamed Fairness Doctrine.” Put in place by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views of public importance.” This was widely interpreted as an “equal time” requirement by station owners -- and a reason for shying away from controversial programming; were controversial opinions to be offered by radio editorialists, many broadcasters felt, they had to provide equal time for an opposing point of view. Rather than face threats from federal officials in the name of the “Fairness Doctrine,” small broadcasting executives simply chose not to air programming on controversial issues of the day.

There is considerable evidence that the doctrine was used to intimidate opponents on the airwaves by past administrations -- notably that of John F. Kennedy toward the growing number of conservative radio broadcasters in the early 1960s. William Ruder, assistant secretary of Commerce under Kennedy, is quoted as saying: “We had a massive strategy to use the ‘fairness doctrine’ to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters and hoped the challenge would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decided it was too expensive to continue.” (Washington Times, September 5, 1993).

Following several court cases that ruled against the “Fairness Doctrine,” the FCC finally discarded it in 1987 on the grounds that it was discouraging rather than encouraging free speech and that the opening of more radio frequencies made varying opinions more accessible to the public. But, as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other conservative broadcasters were on the rise in the 1980s and '90s, efforts to revive the discarded doctrine were launched by congressional Democrats. In 1987, President Reagan vetoed an attempt by Congress to reinstate the rule by statute. A similar measure was launched by Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings (S.C.) and Bill Hefner (N.C.) when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House in 1993, but it went nowhere. Now, Hinchey and Sanders are attempting to revive the “Fairness Doctrine” once again at a time when Democrats rule both Houses of Congress and conservatives are still going strong on the airwaves.

At a White House briefing for reporters on January 18, veteran radio talk show host Les Kinsolving cited the bill and asked Press Secretary Tony Snow whether thee President believed the controversial doctrine should be revived.

“You know, Les, we’ll take that up if it becomes a real issue,” Snow told Kinsolving. (Kinsolving then read Snow the quote from the Kennedy Administration’s Ruder about using the doctrine to “challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters,” referenced it from the Washington Times, and asked if he remembered it; when Snow said he did not, Kinsolving shot back that it “was from an articled headlined ‘Return of the Fairness Demon,’ and the byline was, Tony Snow” -- who joined in the laughter over not recalling his article).

But it will clearly be no laughing matter for conservatives if what Snow dubbed “the Fairness Demon” again rears its head.

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