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For many months, Rush Limbaugh and other conservative talk radio hosts have been warning about the Fairness Doctrine, which would require equal air time for liberal talk radio hosts. How might the proposed law affect Catholic radio?
BY Stephen VincentREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
WASHINGTON — The debate over the
possible renewal of the Fairness Doctrine has generally pitted liberal
lawmakers against popular conservative talk show hosts.
But small media outlets such as
Catholic radio stations may stand to lose the most if Federal Communications
Commission regulators step back into the arena.
With fragile budgets and small
staffs, Catholic radio stations would be hard pressed to meet the Fairness
Doctrine’s requirement to air opposing views on controversial issues or provide
the range of programming that local review boards may demand.
These additional regulations would
“be the death knell for Catholic radio,” said Stephen Gajdosik, president of
the Catholic Radio Association, a trade association with some 200 member
stations and programs throughout the nation.
“If I had to predict, I would say
that the actual Fairness Doctrine will not be passed,” he said, “but the same
effect may be accomplished through an FCC administrative rule called
‘localism.’ This gives a local review board oversight to decide whether a
station’s content serves the needs and interests of the local population.”
the Church teachings that Catholic stations help disseminate are not open to
debate or popular opinion, even if they are not widely accepted, Gajdosik
if a local board does not agree with the Church and sees no value in having a
radio station sending that message?” he asked.
Fairness Doctrine was adopted by the FCC in a 1949 rule that required
broadcasters using public bandwidth to air discussions “of conflicting views of
public importance.” Cable and satellite stations are not affected. The rule was
revoked in 1987 under the Reagan administration, but there have been periodic
moves by lawmakers to restore it.
claim that the Fairness Doctrine actually discouraged discussion of
controversial topics because broadcasters did not want the expense of
monitoring and recordkeeping for their programs or giving precious air time for
opposing views. The conservative Heritage Foundation website treats the issue
at length, claiming that “FCC bureaucrats can neither determine what is ‘fair’
nor enforce it,” and raising fears of “selective enforcement” against
conservative talk radio.
say that the public airwaves must be used to serve the public interest and not
turn into a sounding board or bully pulpit for one point of view. Writing on
the liberal Huffington Post website last year, Charles Reina, a former Fox News
Channel producer, said that the Fairness Doctrine is needed not only for mainstream
media but also for cable.
for “reinstituting some form of regulation over the electronic media is
something that true news people and all Americans who want honest, informed
news should embrace,” Reina wrote. “And any effort to bring back the Fairness
Doctrine must include extending its umbrella to the cable news industry, as
that Fox executives asked him to “dumb down” and “sleaze up” his program to
draw a wider audience, Reina lamented the loss of regulation that would require
thoughtful commentary and the airing of opposing views to help viewers make
much attention has been paid to the Fairness Doctrine by conservative talk show
hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, who calls it the “Hush Rush bill,” no one is sure
when or even if the doctrine will be renewed by the FCC or passed into law by
the Democrat-controlled Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has gone on record
in support of the doctrine, and New York Senator Charles Schumer said last year
that it is necessary to restore “balance” to the media.
on Jan. 9, a few days after the new Congress convened in Washington, an FCC
spokeswoman told the Register that the Fairness Doctrine was not on the
commission’s agenda. Still, on Jan. 7, Republicans in the Senate and the House
introduced the 2009 Broadcasters Freedom Act, which would bar the FCC from
restoring the Fairness Doctrine.
Mike Pence (Indiana) and Greg Walden (Oregon) are sponsors of the House bill,
and Sens. Jim DeMint (South Carolina) and John Thune (South Dakota) are the
a Register interview, Pence said, “We wanted to get out of the gate early
because Speaker Pelosi and other leading Democrats in the House and Senate have
been clear that they would like to see the Fairness Doctrine back. But we’re as
concerned by the possibility of new regulations by the FCC, which can restore
the Fairness Doctrine without legislation by Congress.”
amendment to a spending bill barring the renewal of the Fairness Doctrine
gained 300 House votes in 2007, yet, last year, Pelosi didn’t let a similar
stand-alone bill reach the floor. Pence said he and his colleagues will
continue to push the Broadcasters Freedom Act because, “There’s no doubt that
if it gets to the floor of the House, it will pass by a wide margin.”
in the heated debate over the Fairness Doctrine has been a less publicized
“localism” rule that the FCC has on its agenda right now. Early last year, the
FCC asked media outlets to comment on a proposed rule that would demand
compliance in four areas:
require main studios to be located within a broadcaster’s community of license;
require stations to fully staff main studios during hours of operation;
restore community advisory boards; and
establish minimum levels of locally originated programming that responds to
Catholic Radio Association filed a 19-page brief with the FCC on April 28,
2008, laying out its arguments against localism and the problems the rule would
pose for all small stations and for Catholic radio in particular.
economic base simply does not exist for thousands of stations across America to
be able to expand their payrolls and other operating costs as necessary to
comply with the proposed rules,” the brief stated. In addition, “certain of the
proposed rules conflict with important constitutional and statutory
protections” touching upon the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and
Annoyance or Necessity?
Kresta, president and CEO of Ave Maria Radio and host of a syndicated
three-hour show, said he does not think the Fairness Doctrine will be renewed.
is unenforceable, and there’s no demand for it,” he told the Register. “If it
ever gets pushed to a high level of public scrutiny, it would fail. People like
the general idea of fairness, but to implement and enforce this would be a
Keck, program director of the Eternal Word Television Network, which broadcasts
mainly by cable and satellite but also sends radio programs over publicly
regulated airwaves, said that the small stations that provide the variety and
“niche” programming in a community would be the ones hurt most by regulations
that purport to encourage variety.
question is: Why go back to the Fairness Doctrine regulations that didn’t work
when they were revoked?” Keck told the Register. “We’re not in the old days of
one or two stations in a small community. Anyone now can get 1,000 cable
stations, radio over the Internet, niche programming of every kind. It simply
makes no sense today to say that the average person does not have access to a wide
range of news and opinion.”
added, “Much of what we do on EWTN is in the teaching or talk format that came
into vogue after the Fairness Doctrine was revoked. … Our job is to speak the
truth of the Catholic Church, and that’s what we do. We don’t want to be in an
environment where we can be muzzled every time someone says abortion is wrong.
Would we have to get someone on the show to say that abortion is not so bad?
Obviously, we can’t do that since Catholic beliefs are ultimately universal
from Wallingford, Connecticut.