Debate renews over Fairness Doctrine

Currently, there are fairly generic terms to describe balanced news coverage, such as "both sides of the story," which represent journalistic ideals, not legal requirements.

Currently, there are fairly generic terms to describe balanced news coverage, such as “both sides of the story,” which represent journalistic ideals, not legal requirements. But with Democratic proponents of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” now empowered in a new Congress, opponents of forced balance are speaking out against possible legislation.

Repealed by the FCC in 1987, the legislation required broadcasters – who use government-owned airwaves to transmit their content – to provide equal representation for both sides of a political issue.

President Barack Obama had said during the 2008 presidential campaign that he does not support reinstatement of the law. But there is an appetite for the law in the Democratic camp.

While no legislation recalling the measure has been introduced, the concept has prominent supporters in the newly Democrat-heavy Congress, including Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Richard Durbin (D-IL). Supporters' rationale for the Fairness Doctrine is that the airwaves are owned by the public.

Critics fear that a new law could compel radio and TV stations, for example, to balance liberal and conservative hosts.

“I believe very strongly that the airwaves are public and people use these airwaves for profit,” Feinstein told The Hill in 2007. “But there is a responsibility to see that both sides... of the big public questions of debate of the day, are aired... with some modicum of fairness.”

Yet, FCC commissioner Robert McDowell has warned that a new bill, or other efforts to regulate public affairs coverage, could go beyond TV and radio to the Internet, cable, and satellite radio, according to a report in Broadcasting & Cable.

Chris Battle, partner at public affairs firm the Adfero Group, says there is little need for the law since the popularization of blogging and other do-it-yourself media. The proliferation of such platforms has also made it more difficult for a federal agency to regulate, he adds.

“Debate is a very nuanced, complex thing,” he says. “How do you decide what consists one side or the other? Those are the kind of absurd questions that would have to be very seriously debated, [such as] who [is] the official and final voice of what represents one side?”

Opponents of the Fairness Doctrine have another important ally in McDowell, who said in a January 29 speech that he opposes the legislation, partially on practical grounds that it could not be enforced, especially if proponents tried to apply it to the blogosphere.

“If the doctrine were to return in some form or another, does anyone think the [FCC] is any better equipped today than it was in 1973 to untangle the knotty problems of enforcement by assuming the role of editor-at-large for the entire country?” he asked rhetorically. “Even if the FCC had a large number of people to devote to such reviews, which it doesn't, and even if the prospect of government regulators scrutinizing individual editorial choices were not so constitutionally unsavory, which it is in practical terms, enforcement of the doctrine presents intellectually thorny challenges.”

However unlikely its reimplementation, Battle adds that the Fairness Doctrine – even if applied only to now-conservative-dominated talk radio – could benefit the PR sector.

If the measure were to gain passage, PR firms could, in theory, demand airtime for their clients, he says.

“In a sense, it could be a boon for the PR industry,” he says, “because any time Rush Limbaugh [or a liberal host] makes an argument that goes against the message or mission of a client, [a PR pro] could call up with the law on [his or her] side and demand an opportunity to put the client's views forward.”

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