Fairness Doctrine Is Still Dead, But Groups Are Still Worried

Karin Hamilton | Religion News Service | Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Fairness Doctrine Is Still Dead, But Groups Are Still Worried

February 24, 2009

WASHINGTON (RNS) -- A move to require broadcasters to provide equal time to all sides of controversial issues has religious radio programs worried, even though no formal proposal has been introduced and the White House likely wouldn't support it.

At issue is the idea of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, which policed public airwaves from 1949 to 1987 in hopes of giving voice to all sides of an issue. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) scrapped the policy when it was judged ineffective and a possible violation of free-speech rights.

Reviving the policy has been popular among liberals who feel shut out of conservative-dominated talk radio, and has attracted the support of everyone from former President Bill Clinton to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"You either ought to have the Fairness Doctrine or we ought to have more balance on the other side," Clinton told radio talk show host Mario Solis Marsh on Sunday (Feb. 15). "Because essentially, there's always been a lot of big money to support the right-wing talk shows."

Though fears about a resurrected Fairness Doctrine have circulated for years, concern grew in recent months after Democrats won the White House and solid majorities in Congress.

Two Senate Democrats -- Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Tom Harkin of Iowa -- also both recently made comments to liberal radio host Bill Press about reinstating the Fairness Doctrine.

That's enough to worry Tom Minnery, senior vice president of government and public policy on Focus on the Family Action. Focus on the Family founder James Dobson built his career on the airwaves; Focus programs reach 220 million listeners in 155 countries, according to the group.

"The idea that serious politicians would try to take a huge bite out of the First Amendment takes my breath away," Minnery said. "I hope they try it, because I believe this is a fight they cannot win, and it will expose the liberal element for what it is -- highly intolerant."

Michael DePrimo, special counsel for the Mississippi-based American Family Association, said reinstating the Fairness Doctrine would quell Christian talk radio.

"We wouldn't want to run another program with a contrary viewpoint. That would defeat the purpose of our ministry," DePrimo said. "It would be very problematic for us to give equal time to those who do not share our religious beliefs."

What's more, Ashley Horne, a federal policy analyst for Focus on the Family, said the Fairness Doctrine would gut Christian programming of its Christian content. "They would rather not air a topic on abortion or homosexual marriage because that would require them to air time on a group that violates their beliefs," she said.

Still, all the talk about resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine is just that -- the idea has yet to gain serious traction on Capitol Hill, at the FCC or the White House. In fact, President Obama is skeptical about the need for a renewed Fairness Doctrine.

"As the president stated during the campaign, he does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated," White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said Wednesday to FOXNews.com.

Even some liberal groups, including the Washington-based Center for American Progress, don't support the Fairness Doctrine. "Simply reinstating the Fairness Doctrine will do little to address the gap between conservative and progressive talk ..." CAP said in a position paper.

In addition, legal scholars aren't sure the Fairness Doctrine would survive a court challenge, never mind the thorny legislative and political process of reviving it.

"I think there are some significant hurdles to adoption," said Gene Policinski, vice president of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Foundation.

Even so, religious broadcasters are nonetheless rallying their supporters to keep the Fairness Doctrine dead. The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative law firm founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, has collected 230,000 signatures in support of the Broadcaster Freedom Act, introduced by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., which would prevent the Fairness Doctrine from returning.

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