Editorial: In All Fairness


The Fairness Doctrine continues to be hotly debated in Washington, despite efforts to downplay the controversy. It has been the subject of a lengthy speech by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, a response from a former top policy adviser to the White House, and more comment from a top communications lawyer.

The National Religious Broadcasters plans to speak out from the electronic pulpit on the issue, the organization's president, Frank Wright, told B&C last week, and a Hispanic group has asked the FCC to investigate the related issue of so-called “electronic hate speech” on radio, cable and online.

The misnamed Fairness Doctrine was scrapped by the FCC in 1987. Before that, broadcasters were forced to seek opposing viewpoints on issues of public importance. But in practice, what the doctrine did was impose the government between broadcasters and their audience, and it chilled speech.

After the doctrine was dropped as unconstitutional, broadcasters gained some of the freedoms that had always been accorded to newspapers. But the issue has now morphed beyond reviving the doctrine into the FCC's broader inquiry into broadcast localism. Some, including McDowell and Wright, warn that an FCC proposal that stations be required to consult with advisory boards, and requirements that they provide more detailed programming information to the government, is a stealth attempt to revive the doctrine.

The stock Democratic response is usually that the party has no interest in reviving the doctrine, that there are far more pressing matters, and that this has all been ginned up by the right. But Democratic legislators have occasionally expressed an affinity for the doctrine.

And, as attorney Robert Corn-Revere pointed out on The Media Institute's blog recently, simply disavowing the Fairness Doctrine does not remove the threat that ramped-up localism requirements might pose to broadcasters' editorial freedoms. Citing the localism initiative championed by former Chairman Kevin Martin, Corn-Revere suggested that mandatory advisory committees and detailed programming reports could be a greater threat to independent editorial judgments than the doctrine.

So, here's the deal. If Democrats are truly against the doctrine, they should make it clear at every opportunity. And they should do so even if they think it is an unnecessary concession to the opposing loudmouths on the right-wing airwaves who rankle them.

Candidate Barack Obama made it clear to this page that he did not support the doctrine. But why not go further and pledge to veto such a bill, particularly if it can refocus some of the energy spent debating this issue onto more pressing matters?