More than 33 years after the Radio-Television News Directors Association, CBS and others first filed suit against the personal attack/political editorializing rules, and 13 years after the FCC should have held them unconstitutional along with the Fairness Doctrine, a court finally threw out the rules last week. In doing so, the court rightfully took the FCC to the woodshed for its transparent attempt to continue to keep the rules on the books without justifying them.
With its decision, the court dispensed with the last vestiges of the Doctrine, which has haunted broadcasters for half a century. We'd like to think that this puts an exclamation point on the statement made by the 1987 FCC in scrapping the Doctrine: "Because we believe it will serve the public interest, we seek to extend to the electronic press the same First Amendment guarantees that the print media have enjoyed since our country's inception. The First Amendment does not guarantee a fair press, only a free press." As we say, we'd like to think so, but we have been on this roller coaster ride for too long not to see the next potential twist.
The court threw out the rules because the FCC still refused to justify them, but it did not rule on the merits and said the FCC could reinstate the rules if it could support them. That's the twist. The stomach-turning vertical drop is that to preserve the rules, the FCC will have to reinstate the entire Fairness Doctrine. (We know the issue of whether the reply rules stand on their own has been endlessly debated, but the quote from the 1967 commission that codified the rules [see box, page 7] could not be clearer. They don't.) And as anyone who has read this editorial page or the party platforms knows, reinstating the Doctrine is just what the Democratic party has in mind as part of its general campaign finance reform initiative. The FCC chairman is already looking for ways to help (see below). How much longer will broadcasters be taken for a ride before they gain the full First Amendment rights that should be theirs?