- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2008

COMMENTARY:

Off the record, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says it has no plans to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Nevertheless, earlier this month in a public letter to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, charged the doctrine was to be re-imposed secretly upon broadcast media.

“Under the rubric of ‘broadcast localism’ it is clear the commission is proposing no less than a sweeping takeover by Washington bureaucrats of broadcast media. The proposals and recommendations for commission action contained in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking amount to the stealth enactment of the Fairness Doctrine, a policy designated to squelch the free speech and free expression of specifically targeted audiences,” wrote Mr. Boehner.

Begun in 1934 during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration when AM radio was king, the Fairness Doctrine sought to ensure that radio listeners would get both sides of a political story by requiring that stations give equal air time to different opinions. In 1987, after nearly 40 years of enforcement, the FCC voted to halt the doctrine’s implementation when it had become obvious that the government’s monitoring of the media led to censorship. Radio since the 1980s holds no sort of communication monopoly as it did in the 1930s.

The press release that accompanied the letter from Mr. Boehner’s office notes, “The rules, proposed by the FCC earlier this year, would reinstitute advisory boards to regulate broadcast content and revive a host of other rules the commission dropped more than 20 years ago.”



FCC sources say only a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” has been circulated and that outside comments are just now coming back. They insist no rule of any kind has been circulated, and they continue to work with the National Religious Broadcasters and fully expect to exempt noncommercial stations from any final order in order to protect small stations.

These sources add: “This is in no way a back door to the Fairness Doctrine. It is simply an attempt to get at big companies that are not fulfilling their requirements to the public in order to have their free license to use the public airwaves. There are localism requirements to use the public airwaves just like there are indecency rules. You have to have some relationship with the area in which you are licensed to serve.”

They observe that some companies have been remotely operating in places like Los Angeles and are acting as if they were in small-town America. “We are still a long way from making any permanent decisions, but this has absolutely nothing to do with the Fairness Doctrine.”

As if making a pre-emptive strike, Mr. Boehner noted in his letter that forcing the licensees to recreate the so-called “advisory boards” of a bygone era would encumber broadcast media with onerous bureaucratic burdens not faced by cable, satellite or the Internet. The report’s assertion that these boards would help radio stations “determine the needs and interests of their communities” or promote “localism and diversity” borders on fantasy.

So what’s the problem? Why all the anxiety? Why don’t Republicans in the House of Representatives accept the FCC’s quiet assurances and settle down? The answer, of course, is talk radio. It is the only form of communication that conservatives have through which they can certainly and consistently connect with the general public. Most major television and print media are dominated by liberals, but conservatives are successful on talk radio.

One may think the liberals who dominate other media would be willing to overlook talk radio; they are not. H.R. 2905, the Broadcaster Freedom Act, sponsored by Rep. Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, is tied up in the House Energy and Commerce Committee waiting for a vote that may never come. The House Democratic Leadership opposes this legislation because it permanently would place the Fairness Doctrine in the ashbin of history, where it belongs. The Democrats want complete control of all media.

The FCC should make it clear to Republicans, Democrats and the public, as soon as possible, it has no intention of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine in any way, shape or form. Also, the House Leadership should move H.R. 2905 out of committee and give it a simple up-or-down vote on the House floor. If they did, just about everyone might come out a winner.

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Foundation.

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