The Obama Watch

His Royal Fairness

What exactly is Obama's position on the Fairness Doctrine?

By 2.24.09

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The White House announced last week that the President "does not believe the Fairness Doctrine should be reinstated." The Fairness Doctrine, which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -- acting under Ronald Reagan -- repealed in 1987, would dictate that broadcasters cover issues of public importance and devote equal time to both sides of controversial issues.

On its face, the administration's recent comments seem to deflate hopes of the expanding roster of groups and politicians calling for revival of the Doctrine. The American Spectator reported recently that Henry Waxman (D-CA) already met with the FCC staff to discuss ways to bring back the Doctrine. Waxman is also apparently interested in applying the same standards to the Internet, which would effectively sanitize content and force the government to monitor and regulate the web like the Chinese government does. Other proponents of the Fairness Doctrine include MoveOn.org, ACORN, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA, former President Bill Clinton, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), who said, "For many, many years, we operated under a Fairness Doctrine in this country and I think the country was well-served. I think the public discussion was at a higher level and more intelligent in those days than it has become since."

Leave it to politicians to decide what constitutes intelligent discussion and America should be intellectually and fiscally bankrupt in no time. However, despite attempts by the left wing to censor conservative opinion through the Fairness Doctrine -- which would prove particularly devastating to conservative talk radio, a medium in which liberal programs have not fared well -- people may be under the impression that at least our President is sensible enough to scuttle the idea. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their millions of presumably idiotic listeners can breathe easier, right? Well, not so fast. When one reads between the lines a bit, it suddenly becomes unclear whether President Obama really opposes these censorship policies as much as he would like people to believe. On Whitehouse.gov, here is what the administration says about the President's technology agenda:

Ensure the Full and Free Exchange of Ideas through an Open Internet and Diverse Media Outlets
• Protect the Openness of the Internet: Support the principle of network neutrality to preserve the benefits of open competition on the Internet.
• Encourage Diversity in Media Ownership: Encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum.

Those statements may sound somewhat benign, certainly more so than "Fairness Doctrine," which at this point, most people realize entirely contradicts our First Amendment principles. However, as FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has observed, people should be wary of the Fairness Doctrine under a different name, because "If your brand is controversial, create a new brand." These news brands include buzzwords like "diversity of ownership," "diversity of viewpoint," "openness," or "public obligations," all of which translate into increased government regulation, mandates, and control over content.

Promoting diversity of ownership is one way in which the government could control content by allocating licenses on the basis of politics. And who will decide what constitutes "diversity of viewpoint" or "public interest obligations"? Federal regulators, of course.

Jordan Sekulow, who is the Deputy Director of Government Affairs at the American Center for Law and Justice, a non-profit group that promotes religious freedom and freedom of speech, said: "While we [ACLJ] view the recent remarks by President Obama's spokesperson with cautious optimism, rejection of the Fairness Doctrine is rejection of a polarizing term and not of the underlying principles behind it. For President Obama to silence the drumbeat of opposition against the Fairness Doctrine, he must personally denounce not only the words 'Fairness Doctrine,' but also the policies mirroring it. He could end the outcry simply by publicly instructing the new FCC Chairman not to take any steps towards the reimplementation of any form of the Fairness Doctrine, regardless of name, and telling Congress that if legislation with similar intentions crosses his desk in the future, he will veto it."

This week, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) plans to offer the Broadcaster Freedom Act as an amendment to the D.C. Voting Rights bill. The amendment would prohibit the FCC from reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. It is a wise move to put Democratic lawmakers, and potentially the President, on record about how they truly feel about government censorship. However, even if the amendment passes, policies under different names that would censor the media and the Internet justify careful scrutiny. The President, of course, wants us to belief there is nothing to worry about. We should not be so sure. 

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About the Author
Brett Joshpe is an attorney and entrepreneur in New York City. He is Of Counsel to the American Center for Law & Justice and co-authored the book Why You're Wrong About the Right (Simon & Schuster, 2008).