Is This the New 'Fairness' Man?

Obama administration strategy for diluting the power of conservative talk radio is becoming clearer: talk down the "fairness doctrine," a lightning-rod term sure to mobilize the Right, and talk up the prospect of more minority ownership of radio stations.

The latter will achieve the Left’s ultimate goal of shifting licenses away from networks who air conservative talk and toward minority owners who will broadcast liberal programing.

The new strategy came on several fronts:

First, the White House said President Obama has no plans to revive the Fairness Doctrine, a 1948 policy that required radio and TV users of the public airways to present contrasting views on important issues. President Ronald Reagan did away with the rule – which conservatives have taken to calling the "censorship doctrine" – as contrary to free speech.

Second, the man who now heads the commission that has the power to resurrect the doctrine — acting Federal Communication Commission chairman Michael Copps — said Feb. 11 that his top priority was to usher in more minority broadcast owners.

And, when the Senate last month passed an amendment rejecting a new Fairness Doctrine, it also narrowly approved a bill from the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, to urge the FCC to foster diverse media ownership.

Obama has — earlier this week — nominated Julius Genachowski, a campaign adviser on technology, as FCC chairman.

Genachowski is somewhat of a blank slate on the explosive issue of the Fairness Doctrine. But what is known is that Henry M. Rivera, Obama’s head recruiter for FCC chairman, is a big proponent of shaking up media ownership in this country. It is fair to say that when Rivera was screening candidates, that issue was a factor in choosing Genachowski.

Rivera, a former Democratic FCC commissioner, heads the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, a Washington group that promotes minority ownership.

Its mission statement: "MMTC strongly believes that the breathtaking changes in communications technology and the new global forms of media partnerships must enhance diversity in the 21st century."

The council did not return a reporter’s phone messages.

The trade publication Broadcasting & Cable reported that Copps, a Democrat, told a breakfast meeting of reporters Feb. 11 that "one of the big things I have been interested in is minority ownership of broadcast properties. The time to start moving on that is right now. But we have to make sure that as we go forward with new policies we have the legal underpinnings that we need to satisfy the courts and the factual documentation we need to have to verify our case and if we have to do additional studies, this is the time to do it. I am putting that into motion."

To Bruce Fein, the FCC general counsel in the 1980s when the Fairness Doctrine fell, this statement means Copps’ staff will explore ways to shift licenses to minorities and still comply with Supreme Court decisions on racial preferences.

For example, Fein said, the FCC could agree to drop an investigation into wrongdoing by a radio or TV station if it relinquished its license. "The FCC could say if you sell the license to a minority we will drop this investigation that will result in you losing the license," Fein said.

Congress could also create tax incentives for an owner who sold his business to minorities. "You know how broadcasting now is not financially solid and a lot of people would get out of the business if you provide incentives," he told HUMAN EVENTS.

In a third scenario, at the time of license renewal, a minority group approaches the FCC with the argument that station X is not providing broad programming, but instead a daily fare of conservative talk radio. Therefore, the group argues, the FCC should shift the license to it.

"You can just compete and say I’ll do a much better programs and oust an incumbent," Fein said.

Radio licenses come up for renewal every seven years. For TV, it’s five years.

Copps, Fein said, "is trying to make the case there is discrimination in broadcasting. He’s trying to make a diversity case that a minority-owned station has more diverse views than white ownership."

Liberals will be relying on the 1990 Supreme Court decision, Metro Broadcasting v. the FCC, which upheld the constitutionality of the commission’s affirmation action programs.

In a 5-4 vote, the courts’ liberals rule the FCC may grant a license to minority owners to achieve diversity if all other factors in the competition are equal. The FCC had singled out for affirmative action, "black, Hispanic surnamed, American Eskimo, Aluet, American Indian and Asiatic American extraction."

Metro had been granted a license to operate a new television station in Orlando, Fla. But a year later in 1983, the FCC withdrew the license and gave it to a Hispanic-owned company to increase diversity.

The Senate voted last week to forbid the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. But the issue is far from settled. The House, ruled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who favors the doctrine, may object, leaving the commission’s three Democrats free to re-impose the rule.

Even if Obama publicly says he does not want the doctrine brought back, the Democrat-run FCC is free to impose it anyway.

"Most people don’t recognize the Fairness Doctrine was always a matter of a FCC rule," Fein said. "The Congress never enacted the Fairness Doctrine. That’s how I was able to get rid of it."