FCC Repeals Fairness Rule for Broadcasters
The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to repeal the fairness doctrine, prompting key proponents in Congress to renew vows to place into law the 38-year-old policy requiring broadcasters to air all sides of important public issues.
The commission called the doctrine unconstitutional, saying that it inhibits free speech by discouraging broadcasters from making certain documentaries or taking controversial editorial stands.
“Although its goal was to achieve fairness, it has in fact resulted in blandness and nothingness, chilling the very speech it was designed to foster,” FCC general counsel Diane S. Killory declared shortly before the 4-0 vote to end enforcement of the doctrine.
FCC Chairman Dennis R. Patrick said that “we seek to extend to the electronic press the same First Amendment guarantees that the print media have enjoyed since our country’s inception.”
However, proponents of the fairness doctrine, arguing that listeners and viewers needed First Amendment protection as much as broadcasters, assailed the FCC move as limiting citizen exposure to conflicting views.
Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), whose bill to make the doctrine law was vetoed by President Reagan in June after being passed by the Senate, 59 to 31, and the House, 302 to 102, called the FCC decision “wrongheaded, misguided and illogical.”
“The American people, not the broadcasters, own the airwaves,” he said. “The threat today is that private interests, more motivated by profit than public interest, may limit public discourse.”
Similarly, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications, termed the FCC action “unconscionable.”
Both Hollings and Markey said that they would move as soon as possible to turn the doctrine into law. Congress apparently lacks the votes to override Reagan’s veto of the Hollings bill, sources said, but efforts will be made to attach it to legislation that would be difficult to veto.
Compensatory Air Time
The fairness doctrine, adopted in 1949, when there were fewer broadcast outlets, requires that all radio and television stations air contrasting views on controversial issues they address in broadcasts. If a station fails to present all sides of an issue in its initial program, it is required to offer compensatory time later to views that were not included.
In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the fairness doctrine was constitutional, but the court suggested in a 1984 case that it might review the issue if presented with new information. Meanwhile, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the FCC last January to respond to a complaint by a Syracuse, N.Y., broadcaster that the doctrine violated its First Amendment rights.
In its action Tuesday, the FCC determined that “the enforcement of the doctrine has actually had the net effect of reducing, rather than enhancing, the discussion of controversial issues of public importance and, therefore, violated the constitutional principles announced by the Supreme Court” in the 1969 case.
Moreover, the FCC said, the doctrine “resulted in excessive and unnecessary government intervention into the editorial processes of broadcast journalists, thereby violating the constitutional standard announced” in the court’s 1984 ruling.
After citing the dramatic growth in the number and types of information outlets since the court’s 1969 decision, the commission urged the court to reconsider the First Amendment standards that it applied to the broadcast media in that case. Specifically, the FCC argued that “there is no longer scarcity in the number of broadcast media outlets available to the public that could justify a difference in treatment between the printed and electronic press.”
Although some contend that the fairness doctrine is “needed to prevent broadcasters from abusing their freedom and slanting their coverage,” Patrick said, “the First Amendment does not guarantee a fair press, only a free press.” He said that he expected broadcasters to “preclude the abuse of freedom in the vast majority of cases.”