Diane Disney Says Fairness Doctrine Repeal Hurt Nonprofits

Told National Press Club the nonprofit sector had loss of access to the public airwaves

Fairness Doctrine foes could have a new phrase to watch out for: nonprofit access mechanism.

At a forum in Washington last week hosted by communications think tank, The Free State Foundation, Diane Disney, a professor at Penn State and former Clinton administration official, said that "activities simulated by the repeal of the fairness doctrine" contributed to the need for new regulation, but that they would need rebranding to avoid the "strong and sterotyped" reactions to the term "fairness doctrine."

She said her goal was not reinstatement of the doctrine, but she also said she was concerned about the "unfortunate, unintended consequence of its repeal" combined with the deregulation on the 1990's."

She told a National Press Club audience that the result had been "the nonprofit sector's effective loss of access to the public airwaves."

As evidence she cited a the decline in broadcast and cable PSAs, which she said now represent one-half of one percent of TV time, are "disproportionately placed" in overnight time periodsand tend to be nationally focused. "

Disney conceded that nonprofits now have an alternative means of seeking funding via the Internet, and that they still need broadcast and cable help to let viewers know their Web sites exist. "Most of us don't just sit around surfing the Web hoping to find a nonprofit we can send money to," she said, adding that it was broadcast's reach that was key.

"Sometimes markets fail," she said. "Sometimes governmental regulation is necessary. I think this is such a stiuation. She said that of the PSAs on cable, 94% are nationally focused, and noncable 85%. "It's not enough to say 'Prevent foret fires, " she said. "It is more important to say to people that it is important that they break the code of silence and begin to report arsonists that have been setting fires in Coatesville, PA."

NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow, who was also on the Free State Forum panel, said he had no doubt Disney was right that the majority of PSA campaigns were nationally focused. But he said that while "we all pay lip service to local and community," the country has changed. "We grew up in neighborhoods and communities," but he said he questioned whether that was where today's audience is. " I think we think nationally or regionally in ways that we didn't."

McSlarrow said he was meaning to diminish the importance of the local issues, but to caution that "we may be trying to impose on a new age things that were true when we grew up."

James Gattuso of The Heritage Foundation asked what the proper percentage of national vs. local PSAs should be, saying it was probably an unanswerable question and certainly one that regulators wouldn't get right.

Professor Disney proposed requiring broadcast and cable to provide a minimum number of locally focused PSA's so nonprofits could get free access to the public airwaves for their views. But recognizing that the term fairness doctrine "generates such strong and sterotyped reactions, the approach will need greater focus and a new name". "Maybe nonprofit access mechanism would be more precise and less inflamatory," she suggested, "even thought it isn't particularly sexy."

She also suggested that DTV stations could use their multicast channels to offer time to nonprofits, or government could require stations to make their public service logs "accessible to the community."

Disney billed it as "light touch" regulation that would "help combat the national homogenization and local subordination of local broadcast programming regardless of how competitive entities reconfigure themselves."

While the Obama Administration and some Democrats have said they do not support the fairness doctrine, which required broadcasters to seek out opposing viewpoints on issues of public importance, other Democrats have raised the spectre of its return--the FCC dropped it as unconstitutional in 1987—as a way to provide a counterpoint to conservative talk radio.

Some Republicans, including FCC Commisioner Robert McDowell, have warned the doctrine could return rebranded in another form, including as the sort of public interest requirements Professor Disney was advocating last week.