Saturday, March 7, 2009

Broadcaster Freedom Versus "Fairness Doctrine"

Chairwomn Pelosi (D-Calif.) supports an amendment to a Senate bill that would force the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to “take actions to encourage and promote diversity in communication media ownership and to ensure that broadcast station licenses are used in the public interest.”

The amendment, sponsored bySenate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and attached to a bill (S.160) that would grant Washington, D.C., a vote in the House of Representatives, was approved by the Senate last Thursday in a party line 57-41 vote.

The amendment’s intent is to regulate conservative talk radio, particularly popular programs such as the Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck shows, among many others.

House Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-Ind.), is a former radio broadcaster. He is one of Congress’ biggest opponents of the "Fairness Doctrine." It is a FCC regulation removed in 1987 that forced broadcasters to grant equal airtime to opposing political viewpoints. The amendment is a masked attempt to restore the Fairness Doctrine.

Immediately after the passage of the ‘Durbin amendment’ a separate amendment that would ban the restoration of the Fairness Doctrine. The bill was proposed by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), was also attached to the same D.C. voting rights bill and passed by a vote of 87-11. Senator Pence said, “It should come as little surprise that Speaker Pelosi, who openly supports returning the Fairness Doctrine to the airwaves of American, would support a new version of it."

Senator Durbin claims his amendment cannot be equated with the Fairness Doctrine.

"No one is suggesting that the law for the FCC says that you can give this license to a Republican and this one to a Democrat and this one to a liberal and this one to a conservative. When we talk about diversity in media ownership, it relates primarily to gender, race and other characteristics of that nature, " he claimed. The amendment, which passed the Senate riding on the D.C. voting right’s bill, now goes to the House. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he thinks Republicans may be able to muster the votes to stop it.

I think as we get into the appropriations process you will see us continue our effort to make sure the Fairness Doctrine is not put back into place,” Boehner said at his weekly press conference, “And I do believe the votes are in the Congress to make sure that happens.”

The Durbin amendment reads:

SEC.9 FCC Authorities. (a) Clarification of General Powers. – Title III of the Communications Act of 1934 is amended by inserting after section 303 (47 U.S.C. 303) the following new section:
SEC.303B. Clarification of General Powers. (a) Certain Affirmative Actions Required – The Commission shall take actions to encourage and promote diversity in communication media ownership and to ensure that broadcast station licenses are used in the public interest. …

The amendment is nearly identical to a policy position outlined by the White House that says:

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.

The Center for American Progress, headed by former Obama transition leader John Podesta, published a report that called for new “localism” and “ownership diversity” regulations to balance conservative talk radio with progressive talk radio. The report , “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio,” ends with:

[A]ny effort to encourage more responsive and balanced radio programming will first require steps to increase localism and diversify radio station ownership to better meet local and community needs. We suggest three ways to accomplish this:
-- Restore local and national caps on the ownership of commercial radio stations.
-- Ensure greater local accountability over radio licensing.
-- Require commercial owners who fail to abide by enforceable public interest obligations to pay a fee to support public broadcasting.

No comment was made as to who would be the one given the powers to determine if content is "responsive," "balanced," "localized, or "diverse." Given that there are dozens of markets that extend into most communities and the area of those communities is not bound by governmental jurisdictions, how will it be determined which community is being served?

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