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Opinions Vary on Need for Fairness Doctrine in Broadcast Media
By Eric Green


October 16, 2007

A hot topic on American radio talk shows is whether the Fairness Doctrine, dropped as a rule in 1987, might be reinstated.

The Fairness Doctrine essentially says that U.S. broadcast outlets have to air both sides of controversial issues. The Fairness Doctrine was enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from 1949 to 1987, when it was rescinded during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.

The topic once again became news after conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh was accused of questioning the patriotism of American soldiers critical of the Iraq War. Limbaugh, who has denied the accusations, derisively calls attempts to revive the Fairness Doctrine the "Hush Rush Law."

However, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin says broadcasters such as Limbaugh should be required, as embodied in the Fairness Doctrine, to give listeners both sides of issues so voters can make informed decisions.

Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said that "I have this old-fashioned attitude that when Americans hear both sides of the story, they're in a better position to make a decision."

Steve Rendall, a senior analyst for the New York-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), said "most of what people know about the Fairness Doctrine is wrong because incompetent or corrupt commentators have misrepresented" the rule.

Rendall, also co-host of FAIR's national radio show called CounterSpin, said the doctrine does not say "you cannot be a conservative talk radio show. It merely says that on issues of public controversy you have to offer some differing views" in the same time slot to balance opinions of a show's host. The doctrine, he added, is about "expanding speech" and offering a wider variety of opinions than those expressed by the regular radio or TV host.

Rendall said the major television and radio networks are still the "major force" that provides most Americans their news, despite the proliferation of Internet, satellite and cable television news. He expressed scorn for broadcasters who claim they have "this unique position in the national dialogue to exclude views they don't like and run views they like 24 hours a day when [in fact] they don't own the airwaves." Rendall said the U.S. Supreme Court has found that the interests of viewers and listeners are paramount, not those of broadcasters.

Rendall said the Republican Party almost unanimously opposes the rule, as does the broadcast industry "because it would require more public interest" programs on news and controversial subjects, as well as requiring programs to present opposing views on issues.

Many Democrats are against the rule as well, Rendall said, "because they are close to the broadcast industry," or because they see it as "too much of a wedge, hot button issue" and "something they would rather avoid."


David Silverman, a lawyer who specializes in broadcast and media issues, said that restoration of the Fairness Doctrine is a "possibility" if the Democratic Party wins the 2008 presidential election and retains control of the U.S. Congress.

Silverman, with the Washington firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, said a major argument against the Fairness Doctrine being restored lies with the "plethora of media choices" now available to the American public.

He said even if the Democratic-controlled Congress bring back the Fairness Doctrine, "I think there would be a constitutional challenge to it, and part of that challenge would consist of the fact there's no rationale" for the measure because of the abundance of other news outlets.

Daniel Polsby, dean of the George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, said that the Fairness Doctrine will not return because the measure is "so yesterday."

Polsby said the political support for the measure "isn't there, and that its constitutionality" is such a "weak reed that legislators who might otherwise be sympathetic" to the Fairness Doctrine "will in many cases be turned off."

Polsby said the FCC could vote to have the rule restored. But he added that a court challenge to the doctrine inevitably would result in a ruling that it violates the U.S. Constitution.

Craig Crawford, a contributing editor for the Washington-based Congressional Quarterly publishing company, said that activist Democratic Party lawmakers want the Fairness Doctrine restored. But that sentiment is not shared by the Democratic leadership in Congress, he added.

Crawford, also a television political commentator, said he is a "First Amendment purist and uncomfortable with government setting regulations" on the media. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of free speech and protects the media from censorship.

"My guess is that any talk of putting the Fairness Doctrine back into law is intended to pressure owners of broadcast outlets to include both sides" of an issue, Crawford said. But he added such pressure amounts to "only talk" and not action.


On the Web:

Rendall's article on the Fairness Doctrine on the FAIR Web site


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