With the number of legislative days left in the current Congressional session dwindling, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) recently confirmed that the House is unlikely to move on legislation involving the Fairness Doctrine pending in Congress this year.
The Broadcaster Freedom Act, introduced by former radio host Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN), would prohibit the FCC from re-promulgating the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to provide contrasting viewpoints when covering controversial issues of public importance. The Commission abandoned the Fairness Doctrine in 1985 due to the policy's questionable constitutionality and extensive findings that it actually chilled broadcasters' speech.
Pence's legislation would prohibit the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine—a permanent version of an amendment to the appropriations bill passed last year. The one-year prohibition passed 309-115, with 113 Democrats voting in favor of the measure; however, not one Democrat publicly signed on to support the current legislation, which some attribute to pressure from party leadership. In response to the House leadership's unwillingness to allow a vote on the Broadcaster Freedom Act, Rep. Pence has filed a discharge petition that would force floor action on the bill. The petition has failed to garner the support of a majority of the current House membership, a prerequisite for its effectiveness, though Pence and several other Republican members are lobbying heavily to get the Democrats who voted for the one-year ban to join the petition.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been outspoken in her support of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, admitting in June 2008 that she was not likely to allow the Pence legislation to come to the House floor. Several other prominent Democrats are in favor of reimposing the Fairness Doctrine, including John Kerry (D-MA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), John Dingell (D-MI) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY). Notably, Senator Obama (D-IL) has said he does not support the Fairness Doctrine because he believes the debate veers attention from more critical communications issues, such as concentration of, and diversity in, media ownership.
Supporters of the Fairness Doctrine argue that bringing it back will help ensure that controversial issues obtain more coverage and will ensure that all sides of issues are presented, thereby enhancing public dialogue. Those against the policy believe it will infringe on speech rights and encourage broadcasters to forego coverage of issues altogether. They further argue that bringing back the Fairness Doctrine is primarily aimed at quieting conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity that have thrived since the policy's demise. According to these critics, bringing back the policy would require radio stations to also air liberal talk shows, which have proven less lucrative.
While reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine remains a possibility, it is unlikely a change in policy will happen any time soon.
FCC Commissioner McDowell recently confirmed that reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine has not been raised at the Commission, but stated that the outcome of the 2008 election could impact significantly the future of this policy.
Commissioner McDowell speculated that the Fairness Doctrine issue could become intertwined in Congress with a hot-button issue currently before the Commission—net neutrality. He stated that entangling the former broadcast policy with Internet issues could lead to questions about whether websites should be required to provide equal time or space to opposing views. He noted such a move would result in obvious First Amendment problems.