In the midst of economic troubles and much anticipation of a new administration about to enter the White House, the potential return of the Fairness Doctrine hasn't gotten much attention. But on the eve of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration, Republican members of Congress haven't forgotten.
GOP Sens. Jim DeMint, S.C. and James Inhofe, Okla., along with two of their House colleagues, Reps. Mike Pence, Ind. and Greg Walden, Ore., introduced the Broadcaster Freedom Act at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7.
DeMint, who is named on the Senate of version of the bill, the DeMint-Thune Senate bill, S. 34., told a group of reporters that he would fight any effort by the federal government to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine.
"We want to serve notice with the Broadcaster Freedom Act that we as Republicans are drawing a line in the sand and I hope this won't just be Republicans," DeMint said. "We're looking for Democratic co-sponsors, but we are not going to allow this rule to be reenacted either by the FCC, by the Obama administration or by Congress. One of the most important freedoms we have is for people to know the truth about what we're doing here and people learn more about what we're doing from talk radio probably than from anything else in the country today."
Rep. Greg Walden, one of the namesakes of the Pence-Walden bill, the House version of the Broadcaster Freedom Act, ,said there were instances of the use of the Fairness Doctrine as a political weapon.
"There is evidence in the past that administrations of both parties have used the Fairness Doctrine to go after people they oppose by threatening their licenses when those licenses were up for renewal," Walden said. "And that's the core of the issue here - is that government bureaucrats will decide whether a broadcast station owner gets his license or her license again - or is somehow punished for not having exactly the right other view on the airwaves."
Walden also said the Doctrine would have a chilling effect on free speech in general. Radio station owners would be less likely to allow any violation of the Fairness Doctrine on their airwaves if they thought their station and its license would be threatened.
"Nobody with that capital investment would take that risk if they're going to lose it all, lose their license because maybe they didn't have the right person in place," Walden continued. "So, if you are for free speech, and we should be in this country, then you should be against reinstituting the Fairness Doctrine or some other version of it."
In 2007, Inhofe told a talk show host that he once heard Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. discuss legislating a version of the Fairness Doctrine back into existence. "And I said to that, ‘you miss the whole point, you know. It's market driven and there's no market for your stuff," Inhofe said. He also cited an effort by John Podesta, the founder and president of the Center for American Progress, and currently the head of the Obama-Biden transition team, to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine.
"This effort to get this done was formalized a year and a half ago when John Podesta, who now has a different job, came out with this document - The Structural Imbalance for Political Talk Radio," Inhofe said. "And it's pretty scathing if you stop and look at it. On page 11, it says if you don't do, talking about station owners, if you don't do as we tell you to do in terms of addressing the content, quote, ‘if commercial radio broadcasters are unwilling to abide by these regulatory standards - a spectrum fee should be levied on owners to directly support local, regional and national public broadcasting.'"
Inhofe maintained it was a serious threat because it used rhetoric meant to intimidate station owners. Now, with Democrats controlling the White House and both houses of Congress, it's even more of a threat.
"Now that's enough to put the fear of God into anyone who's out there in this business," Inhofe said. "And I look at this really as intimidation, not as what is going to happen. But people are going to start being afraid of what kind of content is out there. So, this document pretty well formalizes that a year and a half ago they said, this is something we're going to try to do and we now have a Democrat administration coming in. So I think it's very important right now and I agree with my colleagues as how critical this issue is."
The Fairness Doctrine was implemented by the FCC in 1949 in an attempt to ensure that broadcasters presented balanced and fair coverage of controversial subject matter. In 1985, the FCC determined that the Fairness Doctrine was no longer necessary due to the emergence of a "multiplicity of voices in the marketplace."
According to a release from DeMint's office, the FCC was also of the view that the Fairness Doctrine may have violated the First Amendment. In a 1987 case, the courts declared that the doctrine was not mandated by Congress and the FCC did not have to continue to enforce it. Twice Congress has passed legislation restoring the Fairness Doctrine, but Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush vetoed the bills.