Final rites for Fairness rule

FCC regulation wiped off agency's books

The Fairness Doctrine is officially dead.

The FCC regulation, which required that the holders of broadcast licenses present controversial issues in a balanced way, was wiped off the agency’s books on Monday as part of a housecleaning of what the commission described as “83 obsolete media-related rules.”

Although the FCC voted to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, it was still on the books, though not enforced. In the years since, the rule has been a flashpoint for conservative talkradio hosts who suggested that it somehow might be reinstated as an effort by liberals way to stifle their voices.FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, who has previously said he opposed the Fairness Doctrine, said the commission’s action “will remove an unnecessary distraction.”

“As I have said, striking this from our books ensures there can be no mistake that what has long been a dead letter remains dead,” he said. “The Fairness Doctrine holds the potential to chill free speech and the free flow of ideas and was properly abandoned over two decades ago.”

The doctrine dated to 1949 and was meant to address concerns over broadcasters’ ability to meet public interest obligations. With a limited amount of spectrum available, the concern was that holders of licenses could merely turn their stations into their own mouthpieces, promoting their own points of view while shutting out others.

Over the years the FCC refined the doctrine, allowing editorializing as long as alternate views were given opportunity to respond. Also added were rules requiring stations to present issues of community importance. And in an historic 1969 ruling, Red Lion Broadcasting vs. FCC, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the FCC’s ability to enforce it.

By the 1980s, as cable TV took hold, critics said there was ample media to reflect different opinions. After a review and a district court ruling, the FCC abandoned the reg in a 4-0 vote.

Nevertheless, some Democratic lawmakers since then have revived the idea of reinstating the doctrine, citing the state of discourse over the airwaves and concerns that local issues were being overlooked by broadcasters.

But any suggestion that it would be reinstated has been met by expressions of alarm from opponents and many conservatives, including Reagan administration veterans who originally pushed for the FCC to abandon it because of its First Amendment implications.

The FCC also eliminated the obsolete “broadcast flag” rule and another having to do with cable programming service tier rates.

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