Senate vote soundly rejects any Fairness Doctrine revival
The Senate overwhelmingly put itself on record Feb. 26 against any revival of the defunct Fairness Doctrine, designed to require public broadcasters to air “balanced” coverage of controversial issues of public importance.
Conservatives have worried that the Obama administration and congressional Democrats were plotting to revive the policy, dropped in the last years of the Reagan administration, as a means of curbing the influence of commercial talk radio and other media dominated by right-of-center broadcasters.
The 87-11 vote came on an amendment to the bill that would give the District of Columbia full voting rights in the House of Rep- resentatives. It was offered by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican.
But Democrats who worried the ban was too sweeping were able to add a second amendment offered by Senate Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin of Illinois restating existing law that the Federal Communications Commission’s mission should include promoting diversity in media ownership and that the FCC retained the right to require broadcasters to meet their obligations to “operate in the public interest.”
The Durbin amendment was approved 57-41.
Mr. DeMint complained that the Durbin amendment opened the door for FCC regulators to consider fairness rules in other regulations.
“Senator Durbin’s amendment exposed Democrat intentions to impose radio censorship through the back door using vague regulations dealing with media ownership,” Mr. DeMint said.
Mr. Durbin said on the Senate floor neither he nor President Obama wanted to revive the old Fairness Doctrine. A spokesman for the agency said there was no plan to reconsider the abolition of the rule.
“The FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and has no intention of reinstating it now,” FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said. He would not comment on the practical effect of the Senate vote Thursday.
Mr. Durbin argued the DeMint ban was so sweeping it could prevent the FCC from enforcing regulations regarding children’s television programming or the airing of public safety announcements.
“No one is suggesting that the law for the FCC says that you can give this license to a Republican and this one to a Democrat and this one to a liberal and this one to a conservative. When we talk about diversity in media ownership, it relates primarily to gender, race and other characteristics of that nature,” he said.
Conservatives have argued that the Fairness Doctrine in practice would harm conservative talk-radio programs, which have proven far more profitable and popular than most of their liberal competitors.
The FCC first issued the rule mandating balanced coverage in 1949, but stopped enforcing it in 1987 after concluding that the explosion of news outlets and sources of information on public issues made the doctrine obsolete.
A spokesman for Mr. Obama two weeks ago said the president had no intention of reviving the Fairness Doctrine, but several of his aides had discussed the idea of reviving it at least in modified form. Mr. DeMint argued that his amendment was needed to guarantee that the FCC would not attempt to revive quotas or guidelines on programming.
Top-rated radio host Rush Limbaugh said recently he did not put much stock in Mr. Obama’s declaration.
“Of course, they’re not going to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. They’re going to call it something else,” he said.