Democratic Party seeks reinstatement of Fairness Doctrine

Thursday, August 17, 2000

The Democratic Party, as part of its 2000 National Platform, has
called for the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, the Federal
Communication Commission rule that once required broadcasters to provide equal
airtime for opposing viewpoints.

But broadcasters and media advocates say the move is unnecessary, a
trip back to the days when television and radio broadcasts were dominated
solely by three large networks.

“We think this would be bringing back a relic of a bygone
era,” said Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of
Broadcasters. “These were regulations that served a purpose when people
only watched ABC, CBS or NBC and these were the only broadcast opportunities.
But the spectrum is so splintered now there is no need for the Fairness

Today, citizens enjoy a plethora of broadcast choices, Wharton said,
ranging from tens of thousands of radio stations, hundreds of cable television
channels and the Internet.

“The Fairness Doctrine is completely unnecessary given the
explosion in media alternatives,” he said.

The FCC unveiled the Fairness Doctrine in 1949 in an effort to require
broadcasters to “afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of
conflicting views of public importance.” But the FCC discarded the rule
in 1987 because, despite its purpose, it failed to encourage the discussion of
more controversial issues.

The commission also feared that the rules also violated First
Amendment free-speech principles by forcing broadcasters to air opinions and
programs they didn’t want to broadcast. Although in the past, the FCC had
justified the doctrine on the grounds of a limited broadcast spectrum, it said
such a theory no longer applied.

“And it’s even less justified today than it was
then,” said Jane Kirtley, a journalism professor at the University of
Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She noted the influx of
cable television stations and the Internet.

The Democratic Party so far hasn’t offered any reasoning behind
its call for the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, which makes up a
single line of the party platform.

In a telephone interview, a party spokesman said the Fairness Doctrine
portion was an amendment approved by the platform committee last month. He said
he wasn’t able to provide more information. Party press officials
didn’t return repeated calls for clarification.

But the party’s platform statement doesn’t surprise many
media advocates.

Kirtley said the call to bring back the Fairness Doctrine falls in
line with the efforts of Democrats — namely presidential hopeful Al Gore
and running mate Joe Lieberman — to force content control on the
entertainment industry and the media.

“It comes back to this notion that the government and the White
House are the best ones to monitor these resources,” she said.

Paul Taylor of Free TV for Straight Talk Coalition, said he, too, was
more comfortable with journalists determining coverage than government
officials and didn’t hope for the doctrine’s return.

But he said he didn’t think broadcast coverage necessarily
improved in the wake of the doctrine’s demise.

“I’m frankly hard pressed to see how the disbanding of the
Fairness Doctrine has bolstered broadcast coverage,” Taylor said.
“I think what drives broadcast coverage or non-coverage is unrelated to
the Fairness Doctrine.”

He says he’s more excited about efforts to require broadcasters
to provide free airtime for political debate, another issue supported by the
Democratic Party.

The Democrats’ call for the return of the Fairness Doctrine also
comes after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit imposed a Sept. 29
deadline on the FCC to resolve issues involving rules on personal attacks and
political editorializing.

These rules, the subject of a 20-year-old challenge by the NAB and the
Radio-Television News Directors Association, sprang up as corollaries to the
Fairness Doctrine. In part, they require television and radio stations to offer
notice and free response time to individuals whose integrity is attacked

When the FCC last addressed the rules two years ago, two of the
commission’s three Democrats voted against repealing the rules. The
third, Chairman William Kennard, abstained from voting on the issue because he
had served as counsel for the NAB when it filed a challenge to the rules.

David Fiske, a spokesman for the FCC, says not to expect any action
from agency officials on the Democrats’ call for reinstatement of the
Fairness Doctrine.

“They don’t respond to party platforms,” Fiske