Send the Fairness Doctrine to the Ash Heap of Broadcast History

The American people love a fair fight and so do I, especially where the issues of the day are debated. In a free market, fairness should be determined based upon equal opportunity, not equal results. Some voices are calling for Congress to enforce their idea of “fairness” on our broadcast airwaves. But our nation should proceed with caution whenever some would achieve their “fairness” by limiting the freedom of others.

Beginning in 1949, the Federal Communications Commission and its precursor developed and enforced the so-called Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to present controversial issues in a fair and balanced manner. But there’s nothing fair about the Fairness Doctrine. To avoid administrative costs and hours of paperwork and legal fees, broadcasters opted to offer noncontroversial programming. As a result, talk radio, as we know it today, simply did not exist.

Recognizing the chilling effect that the regulation was having on broadcast freedom, the FCC began to overturn its own ruling on the Fairness Doctrine in 1985. Following that change in policy and President Reagan’s veto of attempts to reinstate it, the results have been dramatic.

The lifting of the Fairness Doctrine opened the public airwaves to a free and vigorous discussion of controversial issues that never existed before its repeal. When Rush Limbaugh began his legendary career, there were 125 talk radio stations in America. Today there are 2,000. While Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other conservative giants dominate the national syndicated market, many moderate and liberal programs succeed admirably at the local level.

Since the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio has emerged as a dynamic forum for public debate and an asset to the nation.

Unfortunately, in the name of fairness, there has been much talk recently about the need to level the playing field of radio broadcasting by restoring this archaic regulation of radio and television.

The liberal Center for American Progress published a report entitled, "The Structural Imbalance of American Talk Radio" in June of this year. The foundation, which is run by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, lamented the "massive imbalance" of the radio airwaves in a report calling for a whole range of new content and ownership regulations. While stopping short of calling for a return of the Fairness Doctrine, the Podesta group advocated new regulations that could have even a greater chilling effect on broadcast freedom.

Some of the nation’s most powerful elected officials have said that Congress should bring back this outright regulation of the American political debate. Sen. Diane Feinstein told Fox New Sunday that she was "looking at" bringing back the Fairness Doctrine and Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Dick Durbin have both expressly advocated its return. The top Democratic leadership of the House opposed a modest effort to pass a one-year moratorium on the Fairness Doctrine this summer. Leading voices in the Democratic Party, in and out of public office, are advocating a return to regulation of the broadcast airwaves of America.

According to recent polling, some Americans have a willing ear. In a recent Rasmussen national poll, 41 percent of those surveyed would require radio and TV stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal commentary and only 41 percent would oppose. Liberals are even more supportive of the Fairness Doctrine than conservatives. They support the measure by a 51 to 33 percent margin while conservatives are opposed by a 48 to 40 percent margin. To those who cherish our broadcast freedom, we clearly have some work to do educating the nation.

Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would amount to government control over political views expressed on the public airwaves. It is dangerous to suggest the government should be in the business of rationing free speech. During my years in radio and television, I developed a great respect for a free and independent press. Since being in Congress, I have been the recipient of praise and criticism from broadcast media, but it has not changed my fundamental belief that a free and independent press must be vigorously defended by those who love liberty and limited government.

Congress must take action to ensure that this archaic remnant of a bygone era of American radio does not return. It was in this spirit that I introduced the Broadcaster Freedom Act in July of this year.

The Broadcaster Freedom Act will prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from prescribing rules, regulations, or policies that will reinstate the requirement that broadcasters present opposing viewpoints in controversial issues of public importance. The Broadcaster Freedom Act will prevent the FCC or any future President from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

Thanks to the strong support of Minority Leader John Boehner, Minority Whip Roy Blunt and radio station owner and broadcaster Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the Broadcaster Freedom Act is now cosponsored by all of the 202 Republican members of the House.
This unanimous Republican support for any measure is rare and demonstrates the GOP’s strong opposition to broadcast censorship. Only one Democrat, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) has cosponsored the bill but my hope is that many Democrats will follow. More than 100 Democrats supported our one-year moratorium of the Fairness Doctrine this summer.
In the Senate, Sen. Norm Coleman, Sen. Jim DeMint, Sen. John Thune and Sen. Jim Inhofe have been leading the charge for broadcast freedom. Sen. Coleman introduced the Broadcaster Freedom Act as an amendment twice, only to be filibustered on the Senate floor. These Republican leaders, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, should be commended for their strong stand against censorship of the airwaves.

The time has come to do away with the Fairness Doctrine once and for all. The Broadcaster Freedom Act would ensure that no future president could re regulate the airwaves of America without an act of Congress and it should be sent to the president’s desk.

John F. Kennedy stated, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

America is a nation of freedom and strong opinion. Our government must not be afraid to entrust our good people with all the facts and opinions necessary to make choices as an informed electorate. Let’s pass the Broadcaster Freedom Act and consign the Fairness Doctrine to the ash heap of broadcast history where it belongs.