GOP Dredges Up Fairness Doctrine

Several members of Congress invoke gone, but not forgotten, mandate 3/07/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

Like one of those zombies from Night of the Living Dead,
the supposed return of the Fairness Doctrine refuses to die and
continues to lumber along. This time, the issue has been revived
by newly empowered Republicans in the House who
could make it part of the upcoming budget debate.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) threw
down the gauntlet last week with some red meat
rhetoric at a speech to the National Religious
Broadcasters in Nashville. That is in addition to
Republican efforts to defund the Federal Communications
Commission’s chief diversity officer post
because they see its initial occupant, Mark Lloyd, as
a foe of conservative media, based on past writings.

Boehner was preaching to the choir in Nashville
when he railed against what he sees as government
trying to define for the media what is fair and balanced.
Religious broadcasters have frequently invoked
the Fairness Doctrine as a possible curb on
their freedom to speak out from the electronic pulpit
on issues like abortion or homosexuality.

The doctrine, which was deemed unconstitutional
by the FCC in 1987, required broadcasters to actively
seek out opposing viewpoints on issues of national importance.
The fall of the doctrine is credited with the
rise of conservative talk, along with a flood of crusading TV-station editorials
broadcasters at the time argued were being suppressed by the doctrine.

President Obama has repeatedly indicated—including to this magazine
during his campaign—that he has no interest in reviving the doctrine,
a point echoed by his former Harvard Law School classmate and
friend, FCC Chairman Juilius Genachowski. But that has yet to put a
stake in the heart of the issue.

With the occasional Democrat still invoking the doctrine as a possible
check on conservative talkers, and with Republicans firmly in control of
the House, look for the issue to get some action, rather than just talk,
on the House side of the Hill.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the former radio station owner who is
now chairman of the Communications & Internet Subcommittee, introduced
a bill in the last Congress along with Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.),
himself a former talk radio host, that would prevent the FCC from
reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

Boehner referred last week to a legislative effort by Walden and Pence
to keep the airwaves “free,” adding: “I expect the House to act on this
measure.” The pair introduced a bill in the last Congress to block reimposition
of the doctrine by the FCC. Asked whether they would
reintroduce the bill in this Congress, possibly as an amendment on a
stopgap appropriations bill (continuing resolution) or the appropriations
bill itself, Boehner spokesman Michael Steel
would only ironically say: “Stay tuned.”

Free Press, the nonprofit media reform organization,
is ready to tune out talk of the doctrine.

“There is no serious discussion in Washington
about reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, a policy
that was eliminated years before Speaker Boehner
became a member of Congress,” said Free Press
President Josh Silver said last week.

Silver is concerned about Boehner’s characterization
of the doctrine as part of a broader government
effort, in concert with new network neutrality rules,
to regulate free and open communications. In contrast
to the doctrine, the FCC has actually adopted
network neutrality regs; but the commission argues
those are to provide regulatory certainty and promote,
not stifle, open communications.

Fred Upton (R-Mich.), House Energy & Commerce
Committee chairman, also raised the specter
of the doctrine, telling broadcasters in a speech
that if the FCC’s net neutrality rules were allowed
to stand, the commission could be empowered to do other things like
impose the doctrine or get in the middle of retrans disputes.

House Republicans have also opened something of a separate front on
the Fairness Doctrine. As part of the stopgap appropriations bill passed
two weeks ago in the House, they defunded the position of FCC Chief
Diversity Officer Mark Lloyd, who ran afoul of Republican legislators,
including Walden, due to past writings critical of conservative talk radio.
Lloyd has also said he is not out to restore the doctrine or to carry
out a “secret plot” to rid the airwaves of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh
or “any other conservative talk show host.”

But in the House vote to approve the amendment on the appropriations
bill, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who introduced the bill, took to the
House floor to brand the chief diversity officer post a “Fairness Doctrine
czar” and a threat to free speech.

Republican leaders are actually looking to protect both flanks, trying
to insure that broadcasters have no government-defined obligation to be
fair and balanced, while at the same time trying to defund the Corporation
for Public Broadcasting, which they have long seen as a vehicle for
their liberal critics.

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