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The Effort to Reimpose the So-Called Fairness Doctrine Grows

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was created by Congress in 1934 to oversee the publicly owned airwaves. At the time this meant radio only, but soon Mr. Farnsworth’s television sets created an entirely new industry the regulation of which fell to the FCC.

As those of us who grew up in the days of transistor radio and black and white television might recall, the FCC required all radio and television stations to devote a certain percentage of airtime to public information and political issues. In 1949, this in turn led the FCC to institute the so-called "Fairness Doctrine," an uncodified regulation based on the principle that the American people were entitled to all sides of controversial political issues on publicly owned airwaves.

In practice what Fairness meant was that if a television or radio station owner — the "licensee" in FCC terminology — got two minutes of airtime to explain why he was in favor of a municipal bond issue someone else was entitled to equal time to rebut the argument. Though FCC enforcement procedures could be onerous — and many believed they were unconstitutional — at least they made some sense in the days of radio and the so called “Big Three” television networks: the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Today with more than 500 channels proliferating on cable and the Internet saturated with every political opinion under the sun, it would make no sense whatsoever to bring back the antiquated Fairness Doctrine. Yet that is what the liberals in the 110th Congress are proposing.

A brief recap of the history of this regulation is enlightening.  In 1969 the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Fairness Doctrine. The Court concluded that the FCC was within its rights to enforce its regulation. The decision was based in part on the “scarcity” principle because of the limited number of radio and television frequencies. Fifteen years later in 1984, with the proliferation of cable television and FM radio, the Court concluded that this rationale was flawed and that the Fairness Doctrine limited free speech under the First Amendment.

This did not stop the House of Representatives and United States Senate from voting overwhelmingly to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine a few years later. In 1987 the FCC repealed its Fairness Doctrine regulation. The Democratic Congress then sought to enshrine the Fairness Doctrine in federal law. Fortunately President Ronald W. Reagan vetoed the legislation and despite one or two attempts at reviving it in the nineties, the Fairness Doctrine seemed to fade away. Now the Democrats are poised to hold hearings and debate in preparation for another vote and Congress again may enact the Fairness Doctrine.

So what are the arguments in favor of re-establishing the Fairness Doctrine? In its defense, a columnist in New Jersey named Gene Racz recently wrote the following:

"…Sadly, in many large American markets, the only perspectives presented on both TV and radio are from the right or the hard right. It’s difficult to spot a labor leader, an environmental activist or an anti-war/peace advocate."

Difficult to spot "an anti-war peace advocate" on television? How many hours has CNN given Cindy Sheehan and her ilk in the guise of news? How many hours did ABC devote to the Abu Ghraib Prison fiasco while barely mentioning the bravery of posthumous Medal of Honor winner Corporal Jason Dunham, who threw his body on a live grenade saving the lives of perhaps a dozen of his fellow Marines? I could go on with many more examples. In truth, the only place where conservative opinion predominates is in talk radio, which is precisely why the liberals want the Fairness Doctrine back.

In addition to dominating  the network news, cable news (with the exception of Fox News) and much of the social agenda we see in television programming, the liberals want equal radio time — free equal radio time — to take on the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Since liberal-owned Air America Radio filed for bankruptcy protection in October of 2006, listing debts of over $20 million and proving that liberals cannot operate businesses any better than they have operated the government, liberals know they cannot compete in radio on an honest and level playing field. So they have fallen back on their old stand-by plan: when you need money, let the taxpayers foot the bill. When you can’t compete, force popular radio programs that make a profit to give you equal time. Reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine and the liberals get free airtime while conservative talk radio continues to operate as a business should, meeting its payrolls and paying taxes.

We don’t know what President George W. Bush would do if the Congress re-enacts the Fairness Doctrine as codified law, but he should veto it as firmly and decisively as President Reagan did nearly 20 years ago.

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Mr. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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