Commissioner Wary of 'First Step' Toward New Fairness Doctrine

Calling it a “first step down the same dangerous path” of the infamous Fairness Doctrine, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai this week blasted a study being readied by the agency ostensibly to boost diversity in media. In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Commissioner Pai stated, “With its ‘Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,’ or CIN, the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run. A field test in Columbia, SC, is scheduled to begin this spring.”

Commissioner Pai’s warnings build on the alarms raised by legislators in recent months. Notably, key Republicans on the House Energy & Commerce Committee sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in which they referred to the CIN study as a “Fairness Doctrine 2.0.” They wrote, “Given the widespread calls for the commission to respect the First Amendment and stay out of the editorial decisions of reporters and broadcasters, we were shocked to see that the FCC is putting itself back in the business of attempting to control the political speech of journalists.”

While his agency asserts the study is part of its research for lowering barriers to entry in media, Commissioner Pai dismissed this idea. He stated, “This claim is peculiar. How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the CIN study include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?”  Commissioner Pai noted that the advocates of Fairness Doctrine-like “newsroom policing” are not deterred from continuing to press their agenda. However, he firmly stated, “The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.”

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 eliminated from the Code of Federal Regulations in August 2011. NRB will remain vigilant against a resurgence of such a policy.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: February 14, 2014