Broadcasters are going to have a tough time convincing Congress they can provide balanced coverage of controversial issues without a new Fairness Doctrine, a congressman says.
Rep. Matthew J. Rinaldo, R-N.J., said at a hearing Thursday that the doctrine from 1949 until its repeal in 1987 served as a mild reminder to broadcasters "of their obligations under the law.""It is not the unblinking eye of government on our broadcasters," said Rinaldo, the ranking minority member of the House Commerce and Energy telecommunications and finance subcommittee.
Rinaldo added that while he was encouraged by broadcasters' performance since the Federal Communications Commission repealed the doctrine, "I think the facts of life are such that they have . . . a long way to go before they're going to convince Congress that the doctrine is not needed any longer."
In repealing the doctrine, the FCC said it violated the First Amendment and did not serve the public interest. Broadcasters appearing before the subcommittee Thursday argued that the doctrine was a "chilling" restraint on broadcast journalism and was an anachronism in an era of new technology and media diversity.
John Spain, news director of WBRZ-TV in Baton Rouge, La., said the mere threat of a Fairness Doctrine complaint can make broadcasters hesitant to cover controversial issues.
"The time and money stations expend whenever licenses are threatened by a fairness complaint clearly inhibits and harasses broadcasters," Spain told the panel.
But Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., the subcommittee chairman, said writing the Fairness Doctrine into law would be the subcommittee's first order of business.
"The Fairness Doctrine did not chill broadcaster speech, nor did it infringe on broadcasters' First Amendment rights," Markey said. "The Fairness Doctrine did, however, ensure that broadcasters did not infringe the First Amendment rights of the rest of us - those of us without broadcast licenses."
Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, D-Mich., reintroduced a Fairness Doctrine bill when Congress returned to Washington in January. Congress in 1987 passed a bill to make the doctrine a law, but President Reagan vetoed the measure. The House passed the measure again, but it did not come to a vote in the Senate.
Dingell said he hopes the Bush administration "will take a different perspective."