All is Fairness: B’cast regs win House favor

The proposed reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine gathered steam in a House subcommittee Monday as lawmakers dismissed suggestions that government will unfairly use it to browbeat broadcasters.

Setting for the hearing was Rep. Edward Markey’s (D-Mass.) House telecommunications subcommittee, where lawmakers spoke glowingly in favor of bringing back the regulation that requires broadcasters to air both sides of controversial issues.

“Support remains rock-steady on the committee and in this Congress” for reinstating the Fairness Doctrine,” said Markey.

Even former opponents of the Fairness Doctrine indicated support for reinstating what was once a cornerstone of U.S. communications policy. Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), citing “outrageous examples … of trash and tabloid TV, ” said he has “had a conversion” and will back reinstatement.

The Fairness Doctrine was eliminated in 1987 by a deregulation-minded Federal Communications Commission, which claimed the explosion in cable TV and other media outlets rendered the rule unnecessary. A congressional effort to codify the regulation was defeated by President Reagan’s veto.

Congress has since taken little action to reinstate the doctrine, but President Clinton is viewed as sympathetic to calls for bringing back the regulation. The Senate recently voted to codify the doctrine, and Markey is expected to offer legislation as early as this week to that end.

Speaking against the Fairness Doctrine at Monday’s hearing were J. Laurent Scharff, a lawyer for the Radio-Television News Directors Assn., and Dr. E. Brandt Gustavson, prexy of the National Religious Broadcasters Assn.

Scharff claimed that before the regulation was abolished, public interest groups were “successful at intimidating broadcasters” into airing stories they wouldn’t have otherwise aired just to avoid FCC scrutiny. Broadcasters “gave the complainants what they wanted, whether it was good journalism or not,” said Scharff.

Gustavson worried that a return to the Fairness Doctrine could have a “chilling effect” on religious broadcasters. “Moral issues and public issues are overlapping in our society,” warned Gustavson, who wondered whether TV preachers would be forced to air two sides of an issue when giving a sermon.

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