FCC Eliminates Fairness Doctrine in Rules Shake-Up

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Julius Genachowski

UPDATED: The regulatory body said it has decided to do away with a total of 83 media-related rules that it has deemed outdated.

The controversial Fairness Doctrine and 82 other rules governing electronic media were deemed obsolete and therefore will be abandoned, the FCC said Monday.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called the rules "outdated" and said they were being removed to lessen the burdens of regulation on media companies. The decision also includes an 89 percent reduction in satellite license fees and a 30 percent reduction in broadcasting license fees.

The FCC also said it will delete the "broadcast flag," a technology rule that was designed to prevent the piracy of HDTV content but was considered by many to be an affront to the rights of consumers who might suddenly find it difficult to save TV shows onto their DVRs for later viewing. Other rules being tossed concerned the cable programming service tier rate and broadcast applications and proceedings rules.

Bound to get the most attention, though, is ditching the Fairness Doctrine, an idea that was meant to force radio broadcasters into offering as much left-wing political content as they offer right-wing commentary. Although the doctrine has not been enforced since President Ronald Reagan deemed it unnecessary at best and an infringement on free speech at worst, the rule was still technically on the books.

Liberal commentators like Bill Press and some Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and California Sen. Barbara Boxer, were agitating for its enforcement again, though Genachowski has resisted, and on Monday he announced that the demise of the Fairness Doctrine would soon be official policy.

While the Fairness Doctrine was designed to ensure equal sides of controversial issues were discussed over the airways, its effect was to discourage the discussion of politics entirely on the radio because executives were unsure as to how a vague standard of "fairness" would be applied by regulators. When the Fairness Doctrine went away for all practical purposes in 1987, it paved the way for Rush Limbaugh and a flood of conservative talk radio hosts who came after him, much to the dismay of some on the other side of the political spectrum.

"The elimination of the obsolete Fairness Doctrine regulations will remove an unnecessary distraction," Genachowski said. "Striking this from our books ensures there can be no mistake that what has long been a dead letter remains dead. The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas and was properly abandoned over two decades ago."

Until Monday, some liberal activists thought they had a shot at reinvigorating the Fairness Doctrine, based in part on President Barack Obama tapping John Podesta to head his transition team three years ago. Podesta heads the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank that has railed against what it calls "the structural imbalance of political talk radio." Podesta's group argues for stringent ownership caps and a more onerous license-renewal process that incorporates "localism," whereby community activists are empowered to dictate programming suggestions that, if deemed by the FCC to be appropriate, would result in fines if not carried out.

The FCC is expected to issue a full list of changes on Wednesday, and it wasn't apparent Monday whether localism would be addressed. The abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine and the 82 other changes will become official policy within three weeks, an FCC spokesman said.