It seems like whenever Democrats are elected to serve as President and take control of Congress, there is talk about the revival of the Fairness Doctrine as some panacea for restoring balance and civility to political debate. Let’s a take look back at just what that doctrine required, the reasons for its demise and some of the issues that would surround any attempt to bring it back.
The poorly understood history of the Fairness Doctrine shows not only that reinstating it won’t fix current political media crises, but also that it won’t be the check on conservative media’s worst offenses that so many want it to be.
The Zapple Doctrine was an outgrowth of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine. It required that stations that give air time to the supporters of one candidate in an election give time to the supporters of competing candidates as well. Even though the Fairness Doctrine has been defunct for years, Zapple apparently lived on so stations had to be concerned about giving air time to supporters of political candidates for fear of having to provide similar time to those supporting competing candidates. Apparently, that uncertainty has now been resolved, as in two just released cases, the FCC”s Media Bureau has declared that Zapple, like the rest of the Fairness Doctrine, is dead.
Yesterday, FCC Chairman Genachowski issued a press release stating that the FCC was abolishing the Fairness Doctrine as part of its clearing of its book of 83 obsolete media rules. What should the reaction of broadcasters be now that the Fairness Doctrine has been officially abolished? Probably, a collective yawn. In 1987 — almost 25 years ago — the FCC felt that it could not enforce the doctrine as it was an unconstitutional restriction on the freedom of speech of broadcasters. So the repeal of the actual FCC rule that sets out the doctrine is really inconsequential, as it practically changes nothing. What remains unknown about yesterday’s announcement from the chairman is just how far this repeal goes.
The FCC has agreed to comply with a House GOP request to once and for all kill the fairness doctrine. The agency’s chairman, Julius Genachowski, said he expects the FCC staff will recommend the deletion of the fairness doctrine and related provisions as part of his effort to comply with President Obama’s call for agency’s to eliminate unnecessary regulations.
The leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Tuesday asking him to strike the Fairness Doctrine from the agency’s rulebook. The controversial rule, introduced in 1949, required broadcasters to present controversial public issues in a manner deemed fair and balanced by the FCC. The commission concluded in 1987 that the Fairness Doctrine was unconstitutional and pledged to cease enforcing it.
Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking Democrat in Congress and father of FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, said Sunday the deadly shooting in Arizona should get the country thinking about what’s acceptable to say publicly and when people should keep their mouths shut. He wants standards put in place to guarantee balanced media coverage with a reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.
“I do not believe the FCC should reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.” That was the message Friday from FCC Commissioner Michael Copps to Rep. Joe Barton. Barton had asked Copps to clarify that point after the commissioner’s speech at Columbia University where he talked about the government applying a more stringent public interest test on broadcasters.