Fairness Doctrine Not Needed, FCC Chairman Says

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has waded into the debate over the Fairness Doctrine by telling lawmakers that he see "no compelling reason to reinstate" the broadcasting regulation.

His stance drew criticism from a liberal media analyst, who told Cybercast News Service that the rule should be reinstated, even though when it was enforced in the past it had been limited in its effectiveness.

"In my judgment, the events of the last two decades have confirmed the wisdom of the Commission's decision to abolish the Fairness Doctrine" in 1987, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wrote in a letter this week to Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), and made public on Thursday.  FCC Chairman Kevin Martin

"Discussion of controversial issues over the airwaves has flourished absent regulatory constraints, and the public now enjoys access to an ever-expanding range of views and opinions," Martin noted.

"Indeed, with the continued proliferation of additional sources of information and programming, including satellite broadcasting and the Internet, the need for the Fairness Doctrine has lessened ever further since 1987," he added.

"In short, I see no compelling reason to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in today's broadcast environment, and believe that such a step would inhibit the robust discussion of issues of public concern over the nation's airwaves," Martin said.

The FCC chair's remarks were made in response to a July 19 letter from Pence, Walden, and Reps. Barton (R-Texas) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.), seeking his opinion on the regulation's appropriateness in today's broadcast environment.

Pence and Walden on Thursday said Martin's comments "should encourage millions who cherish the vigorous debate of American talk radio."

However, Steve Rendall, senior analyst for the liberal media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), told Cybercast News Service that Martin's statement was "wrong on almost every count."

"The broadcast spectrum has not increased in size" since 1987, he said. "Everyone who has a broadcast license has a monopolistic use of that frequency" even though "those frequencies are all owned by the American people."

Rendell described the Fairness Doctrine as "very meek." "It certainly didn't deliver on its promise of fairness" he said, because it "was always a very tepid policy that was designed to tread very, very lightly on the First Amendment."

"No cops from the FCC monitored fairness," Rendall added, saying the rule "depended on listeners or viewers who may have noticed that this or that station didn't air opinions they thought were important."

"In almost every case, the viewers would go to the station and settle it with the owners," he stated. "But if the station said no, "then the viewer or listener could take that to the FCC."

'Poorly informed debate'

Rendall asserted that while many people say the removal of the Fairness Doctrine gave rise to conservative radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, "the explosion of right wing talk" in the 1980s should in fact be attributed to two advances in technology.

Improvement in satellite technology enabled local shows to be aired simultaneously nationwide, and the availability of toll-free 800 numbers for listeners to use when calling in to comment contributed to moving talk radio away from being "largely a local thing," he said.

Rendall said the debate over the Fairness Doctrine is "poorly informed" on both sides of the political aisle, even regarding the policy's enforcement.

"The Fairness Doctrine, if it was applied to talk radio at all, wouldn't be for individual shows," he explained. "It required that a station, over the course of its broadcast schedule, air opposing opinions on controversial issues."

Nevertheless, "the right thinks they have an advantage" in this area, "and they want to hold onto it," Rendall added.

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, the FCC enacted the Fairness Doctrine in 1949 to ensure the "right of the public to be informed" by presenting "for acceptance or rejection the different attitudes and viewpoints" on controversial issues.

The regulation was upheld in 1969 by the Supreme Court because the public airwaves were a "scarce resource" that needed to be open to opposing views, but in a 1985 report, the FCC concluded that the policy inhibited broadcasters from dealing with controversial issues and was no longer needed because of the growth of cable television.

Since the rule was abandoned in 1987, its restoration has been the subject of debate several times -- including earlier this year, when Democrats gained marginal control of both houses of Congress as a result of the 2006 elections.

An amendment to appropriations legislation preventing the FCC from using any funds to restore the Fairness Doctrine in the coming year was introduced by Pence and approved by the House in a vote of 309 to 115.

The Broadcaster Freedom Act was introduced in the Senate earlier this month, but Democrats were able to muster sufficient votes to prevent it from being attached as an amendment to the Defense appropriations bill.

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