WASHINGTON — It was the decision that launched a thousand lips.
In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission stopped requiring broadcasters to air contrasting views on controversial issues, a policy known as the Fairness Doctrine. The move is widely credited with triggering the explosive growth of political talk radio.
Now, after conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage helped torpedo a major immigration bill, some in Congress have suggested reinstating the Fairness Doctrine to balance out those powerful syndicated voices.
That has unleashed an armada of opposition on the airwaves, Internet blogs and in Washington, where broadcasters have joined with Republicans to fight what they call an attempt to zip their lips.
Opponents of the Fairness Doctrine said it would make station owners so fearful of balancing viewpoints that they’d simply avoid airing controversial topics — the “chilling effect” on debate that the FCC cited in repealing the rule two decades ago.
“Free speech must be just that — free from government influence, interference and censorship,” David K. Rehr, president of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, wrote to lawmakers.
There’s little chance the fairness doctrine will return in the near future, as FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin publicly opposes it and the White House wrote to broadcasters last week assuring them that Bush would veto any legislation reinstating it. But the issue has renewed debate about how far the government should go in regulating the public airwaves.
Some Democrats say conservative-dominated talk radio enables Republicans to mislead the public on important issues such as the Senate immigration reform bill.
“These are public airwaves and the public should be entitled to a fair presentation,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is considering whether the Fairness Doctrine should be restored.
Republicans say that the policy would result in censorship and warn that it could return if Democrats win the White House in 2008.
“This is a bad idea from a bygone era,” Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) said at a news conference last week with five other Republicans announcing legislation to block reenactment of the policy.
The FCC enacted the Fairness Doctrine in 1949 to ensure the “right of the public to be informed” by presenting “for acceptance or rejection the different attitudes and viewpoints” on controversial issues. The policy was upheld in 1969 by the Supreme Court because the public airwaves were a “scarce resource” that needed to be open to opposing views.
Broadcasters disliked the rule, which put their federal station license at risk if they didn’t air all sides of an issue. Michael Harrison, who hosted a weekend talk show on the former KMET-FM in Los Angeles from 1975 to 1985, said the policy kept him from giving his opinions on controversial topics.
“I would never say that liberals were good and conservatives were bad, or vice versa. We would talk about, “Hey, all politicians are bad,” or “It’s a shame that more people don’t vote,” said Harrison, who publishes Talkers magazine, which covers the talk radio industry. “It was more of a superficial approach to politics.”
The Fairness Doctrine ended during the Reagan administration. In a 1985 report, the FCC concluded the policy inhibited broadcasters from dealing with controversial issues and was no longer needed because of the growth of cable television.
“Many, many broadcasters testified they avoided issues they thought would involve them in complaints,” recalled Dennis Patrick, who was chairman of the FCC in 1987 when it repealed the policy. “The commission concluded that the doctrine was having a chilling effect.”
The decision was controversial. Congress passed a law in 1987 reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, but Reagan vetoed it.
Shortly afterward, Limbaugh, then a little-known Sacramento disc jockey, emerged as a conservative voice on radio stations nationwide. Another failed congressional attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine in 1993 was dubbed the “Hush Rush” bill.
A 1997 study in the Journal of Legal Studies found that the percentage of AM radio stations with a news, talk or public affairs format jumped to 28% in 1995 from 7% in 1987. Liberal talk radio efforts, such as Air America, have struggled to get ratings.
The Fairness Doctrine seemed dead and buried. Then in January, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who is running for president, announced that with Democrats back in the House majority, he planned to hold hearings on reviving the policy because media consolidation has made it harder for some voices to be heard.
And this spring, conservative talk show hosts unleashed a campaign against the Senate immigration bill, which would have given the nation’s 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. Their listeners flooded the Capitol with complaints, and the bill failed last month on a procedural vote.
Bill supporters immediately lashed out at talk radio.
“Talk radio is running America. We have to deal with the problem,” said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). And Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) said they favored restoring the Fairness Doctrine.
“We have more power than the U.S. Senate and they know it and they’re fuming,” conservative talk show host Savage said in an interview. The liberal bent of the mainstream media more than compensates for conservative dominance of AM talk radio, he said.
“We’re going to have government snitches listening to shows,” he said. “And what are they going to do, push a button and then wheel someone into the studio and give their viewpoint?”
But Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.) said the rest of the media presented a balanced view of controversial issues, and the Fairness Doctrine would simply reimpose that requirement on talk radio.
Hinchey is readying legislation to reinstitute the doctrine as part of a broad package of media ownership reforms.
“It’s important that the American people make decisions for themselves based upon the ability to garner all the information, not just on what somebody wants to give them,” he said.
Republicans have seized on comments like that.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a former radio talk show host, proposed an amendment last month prohibiting the FCC from spending money to reimpose the Fairness Doctrine. It passed 309 to 115 after a parade of Republicans took to the House floor to blast calls to restore the policy. Democrats branded the vote a political stunt. Republicans tried to propose a similar amendment in the Senate last week, but Democrats blocked it .
Republicans vow to continue pressing the issue.
“The American people love a fair fight, and so do I,” Pence said. “But there’s nothing fair about the Fairness Doctrine.”