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.”
Yet, the Church teachings that Catholic stations help disseminate are not open to debate or popular opinion, even if they are not widely accepted, Gajdosik pointed out.
“What if a local board does not agree with the Church and sees no value in having a radio station sending that message?” he asked.
The 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 The rule was revoked in 1987 under the Reagan administration, but there have been periodic moves by lawmakers to restore it.
Critics 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.
Advocates 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.
Plans 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 well.”
Claiming 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 informed decisions.
Although 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.
However, 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.
Reps. 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 Senate sponsors.
In 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.”
An 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.”
Overlooked 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:
1) require main studios to be located within a broadcaster’s community of license;
2) require stations to fully staff main studios during hours of operation;
3) restore community advisory boards; and
4) establish minimum levels of locally originated programming that responds to community concerns.
The 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.
“The 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 religion.
Annoyance or Necessity?
Al 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.
“It 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 nightmare.”
Doug 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.
“My 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.”
Keck 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 truths.”
Stephen Vincent writes
from Wallingford, Connecticut.