The Fairness Doctrine, that long-dead canon of broadcast industry oversight, could come roaring back to life.
Until last week, that prospect appeared little more than a two-line plank in the Democratic platform. But last week, the country's top communications regulator confirmed he is giving serious consideration to reviving the defunct government policy, which obligated stations to air programs on controversial issues and make time for opposing views.
FCC sources said Chairman William Kennard is leaning toward reviving the doctrine, but his office said he has not made a decision.
Kennard decided to reconsider the doctrine after jumping into the fray over agency rules requiring a right of reply to broadcast personal attacks and political editorials. The rules were an outgrowth of the Fairness Doctrine and are its only remnants still in force. They are also the subject of a years-long challenge by broadcast groups.
The federal appeals court in Washington last summer allowed the FCC to keep personal attack/political editorial rules on the books for now. To retain them permanently, the FCC would have to justify their existence.
The National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio-Television News Directors Association argue that the rules should have been eliminated with the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987.
In July, the appeals court ordered the FCC to provide its justification for retaining the rules by Sept. 29.
One big roadblock, however, has been a 2-2 deadlock caused by Kennard's past decision to recuse himself from the issue. Kennard has long cited a conflict of interest: He helped prepare initial legal attacks on the rules when he was counsel for the National Association of Broadcasters.
With the deadline looming, Kennard was said to be looking for a reason to end his recusal and join fellow Democratic commissioners backing the rules.
His options: either declaring the 1987 decision to dump the Fairness Doctrine a mistake or backing the FCC's current legal argument that the personal attack/political editorial rules can exist independent of the Fairness Doctrine. (A third choice, of course, would be to vote to end the rules.)
The prospect of a revived Fairness Doctrine alarmed broadcast industry officials. They say stations are doing a good job of covering public affairs and that the right-of-reply rules cause stations to avoid taking editorial stands on important community issues. Even worse: Cable, Internet, and print news outlets don't face these restrictions.
"In an era of 24-hour news channels, it doesn't make sense to treat broadcasters differently," said Greg Schmidt, lobbyist for LIN Television.
Stations already face sufficient market pressure to provide fair and balanced coverage, added Belo Corp.'s Mike McCarthy. "The vast majority of television stations today are competing to be first- or second- rated in their market, and local news is one of the chief ways they compete for viewers and revenues," he said. "The only way they can win is to have high standards and deliver valuable information."
But Media Access Project's Andrew Schwartzman countered that stations have increasingly backed away from coverage of important local issues since the Fairness Doctrine was dropped.
"A very large number of broadcasters have stopped doing any news and public- affairs programming and have tried to fulfill their obligation to the public interest with various public-service activities," he said. "Sending Bozo the Clown to the hospital and covering it on the news is a perfectly fine thing to do but does not fulfill their duty."
The Fairness Doctrine's demise came about under the tenure of Republican FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick. Under pressure from a federal court order, the commission declared the doctrine unconstitutional in 1987.