Lawmakers Push for Return of Fairness Doctrine

LOS ANGELES The Fairness Doctrine, which forced broadcasters to air views on both sides of controversial issues, was abolished in 1987, paving the way for talk radio to take the opinionated — and popular — form it has today.

Now, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and such influential Democratic senators as Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer are pushing for its return, or something like it. Could the provision pull a Don Imus and make a radio comeback?

It could, industry insiders say. And the government-mandated programming restrictions that come with it could hobble an already struggling industry. Talk-radio hosts are unlikely to accept a new Fairness Doctrine without a fight, though. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are among those already railing against it daily.

By some estimates, conservatives on talk radio dominate liberals by a ratio of 10-to-1, hence the call by some liberals to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. But Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) inserted language into the Federal Communications Commission’s current budget barring it from being reinstated this year.

With the year drawing to an end and Barack Obama moving into the White House, talk about the Fairness Doctrine has heated up. Obama likely will name a new FCC chairman and make Democrats a majority on the five-person panel for the first time in eight years.

Addressing Imbalance

Obama has called on Henry Rivera, who was a commissioner in the 1980s when the Fairness Doctrine existed, to oversee the FCC transition process. Rivera is a supporter of bringing back the provisions. And heading Obama’s overall transition team is John Podesta, head of liberal think tank the Center for American Progress. Last year, the CAP issued a report called “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio.”

While the CAP stopped short of advocating a return of the Fairness Doctrine, it did support more stringent adherence to so-called localism, which critics consider a backdoor to requiring that stations ditch some of their conservative hosts.

The FCC is considering the matter now, weighing such questions as whether to require stations to create “community advisory boards” made up of “local officials and other community leaders.” The boards would tell radio executives whether the content they broadcast is adequately addressing the needs of the community, subject to the board’s interpretation.

“The disparities between conservative and progressive programing reflect the absence of localism in American radio,” the CAP said. The group suggests that radio broadcast licenses be renewed every three years instead of eight and that stations that don’t prove they are operating “on behalf of the public interest” be denied license renewals or be fined.

Podesta suggests that fines would go to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which operates National Public Radio. He figures that the fees could amount to a $250 million annual transfer of wealth from radio companies to the CPB.

Podesta presented his ideas to a group of Democratic senators, including California’s Dianne Feinstein. The group tossed around ideas like the Fairness Doctrine, localism and reducing the size of radio conglomerates, all in the name of making talk radio more “progressive,” said Stephanie Miller, an attendee of the meeting.

“With Democrats in control, it’s a whole new ballgame, and hopefully it will be good for progressive radio,” said Miller, a popular liberal talk-radio host.

Miller said she’s against the Fairness Doctrine and localism but noted that something needs to be done to encourage radio stations to include more liberals on their talent rosters. “I can’t make the kind of money on 60 stations that (Sean) Hannity makes on 600. That’s the kind of fairness I’m talking about,” she joked.

Profit Concerns