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Fairness doctrine back in spotlight

Move struck down by Reagan-era FCC

As presidential candidates increasingly sidle up to media outlets they consider friendly, and cable talking heads sound like PR annexes of political parties, it’s no wonder there’s a simmering debate over whether the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine should be revived.

The Fairness Doctrine was a Federal Communications Commission policy dating to 1949 that required owners of broadcast licenses to balance their coverage of “issues of public importance” with “contrasting perspectives.”

The doctrine was struck down unanimously by the Reagan-era FCC, which argued it “restricted” and “degraded” the freedom and editorial prerogatives of broadcast journalism. Since then, the multichannel explosion of cable, rise of talk radio and the dawn of the Internet make the notion of a new-model Fairness Doctrine unnecessary, opponents of the reg say to periodic attempts to revive it. (Two congressmen — one Democrat, one Republican — say they plan to introduce such legislation in the fall).

In the absence of the Fairness Doctrine, however, the airwaves are monitored by an even older reg that is still on the books known as the equal time provision.

Dating from 1927, equal time allows broadcasters and cablers to air only one side of an issue if it’s presented in the context of a news interview or public affairs program. But if a broadcaster or cabler either sells air time or gives it free to one candidate, equal time requires that opposing candidates be offered the same deal.

An equal time challenge was raised last fall when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared on NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” during the thick of the state’s gubernatorial campaign. State Democrats petitioned the FCC for equal time for challenger Phil Angelides, but were rejected on the grounds that “Tonight” met the standard as an interview/news show.

Equal time may become an issue if actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson formally declares himself a candidate for the GOP presidential nom. If Thompson does declare, his opponents may try to invoke the equal time provision because his appearances in re-runs of “Law & Order” are outside the context of news or public affairs programming.

In 1986, Fred Grandy was a star on ABC’s hit series “Love Boat” when he decided to run for Congress. He was surprised when the show’s producers threatened a lawsuit.

“They said my running would trigger equal time, and they’d have to pull the show and lose revenues as a result,” he says.

With the help of the ABC affiliate in Sioux City, Iowa — Grandy’s district — he persuaded the producers to back down, then found himself challenged in the GOP primary by a minister who, behind in the polls, invoked the equal time rule and had “Love Boat” pulled from the station. Viewers in the district were not amused.

“A woman came to me and asked if it was true that this reverend guy had caused ‘Love Boat’ to be pulled,” Grandy recalls. “I said yes, and she said, ‘For a reverend, he sure doesn’t know what’s holy.'”

The challenger fell so far behind that Grandy’s eventual Democratic opponent never made a peep about equal time.

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