Fairness Doctrine Trying to Rise from its Coffin?

Given the political theater of Senate Democrats on “net neutrality” this week, it was little surprise when that internet freedom issue became a focus in a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that featured testimony from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. However, at the very end of the hearing came a question alarming to anyone who thought the speech-chilling “Fairness Doctrine” was long dead and buried.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), lamenting about the toxicity of today’s political discourse, appeared to lay the blame on the FCC, particularly the defanging of the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan Administration. The Fairness Doctrine, first introduced in 1949, enabled the FCC to compel broadcasters to air opposing viewpoints on controversial issues deemed to be of public importance. The Fairness Doctrine, while not enforced since 1987, was finally and completely eliminated from the Code of Federal Regulations in August 2011 during the time of President Barack Obama’s first FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski.

Citing a conversation about this matter with a former senator, Manchin asked for Pai’s thoughts about the era of this rule “when there was fairness to the airwaves.”

Subtly alluding to the vicious attacks he has received from the Left, Pai said that he knew perhaps more than most the toxicity of today’s public discourse. However, he gently pushed back on the idea that the ending of the Fairness Doctrine was a cause for that situation. Pai highlighted that the First Amendment raises “substantial questions about whether the government should get involved in mediating that kind of public discourse.” Even if such content moderation was constitutional, Pai questioned whether it was “wise to have bureaucrats in Washington sitting in judgement.”

Manchin countered, “It worked up until that point of time and it’s gone to heck in a handbasket since.”

Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, president & CEO of NRB, commented after the hearing, “The Fairness Doctrine was a pernicious policy long opposed by NRB. The FCC, under both Republican and Democrat leadership, was right to stop and then purge it. I would welcome the opportunity to be of assistance to Senator Manchin in exploring the dangers of that doctrine, and I encourage him and all Members of Congress to keep that slayed beast in its coffin where it belongs.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who chaired the hearing, also pushed back against the Fairness Doctrine. Regarding the issue raised by Manchin of improving civility in the public square, Lankford stated, “The best thing we could probably do is model that rather than legislate that.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: May 18, 2018


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