Fairness Doctrine back in play

Conservatives look to squash return of legislation

Conservative lawmakers, joined by some liberal allies, sought to head off reinstating the so-called Fairness Doctrine on Thursday as they pushed a vote on the issue.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who has made somewhat of a reputation on speech issues, managed to attach an amendment to the government spending bill that funds the U.S. Treasury and Justice departments, the executive branch and many independent agencies, including the FCC.

Some notable Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., reportedly have suggested that Congress needs to resurrect the FCC doctrine requiring broadcast licensees to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equal and balanced manner.

Republicans contend that Democratic ire at conservative talk radio and other conservative news outlets has fueled a desire to bring back the doctrine.

House Appropriations Committee chairman Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., said that he expected the amendment to pass as the committee already had approved it as part of the spending bill.

While Obey is no fan of conservative broadcasting, denigrating it for reveling "in all of their bloviating glory" and calling it "yap, yap TV," he said there was no move afoot to restore the doctrine.

"This is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing," Obey said of Pence's amendment.

But Pence contends that the legislation is necessary to protect broadcasters from government intrusion.

"In a free market, fairness should be determined based upon equal opportunity, not equal results," Pence said. "As some voices are calling for Congress to enforce their idea of 'fairness' upon the American people, it would be good for us to proceed with caution whenever some would achieve their 'fairness' by limiting the freedom of others."

Pence plans to introduce a stand-alone bill, the Broadcasters Freedom Act, today. His spokesman said it has garnered more than 100 co-sponsors.

Over the years, the doctrine has been criticized because it allowed the government to define what was fair. Although aspects of the doctrine have been questioned by the courts, the U.S. Supreme court upheld the FCC's authority to enforce the doctrine in 1969.

In August 1987, the FCC abolished the doctrine by a 4-0 vote, saying it had grown to inhibit rather than enhance debate and suggested that, because of the many media voices in the marketplace at the time, the doctrine was perceived to be unconstitutional.

Congress attempted to restore the doctrine that same year, but the legislation was vetoed by then-President Reagan. A second attempt to resurrect the doctrine in 1991 was derailed when President George H.W. Bush threatened another veto.

Separately Thursday, the FCC held the latest of its regional meetings on media-ownership regulations, this time in Portland, Maine.

Former AFTRA president and TV journalist Shelby Scott claimed in his testimony that broadcast companies are abrogating their responsibility to provide quality local news coverage.

"The commission's media-ownership regulations are an important part of preserving localism in broadcasting," Scott said. "Here in Portland and in local communities across New England, the erosion of meaningful rules governing ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations has been a disaster for localism."

Carl DiOrio in Los Angeles contributed to this report.