Fairness Doctrine Battle Brews Over Regulating Airwaves

FOR the past few years, some congressmen have tried to reintroduce a 60-year-old law that regulated radio and TV airwaves. Most of their recent efforts, however, have gone unnoticed outside Washington - until now.

Congress's fourth attempt to reenact the Fairness Doctrine since it was struck down during the Reagan administration is capturing attention in media circles across the country. Opponents argue that is precisely why the law should be kept off the books.

The doctrine dates to 1927, when the government decided that a policing mechanism was needed to regulate the limited access to the broadcast medium, part of the public domain. Attempts by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to codify the law were undertaken to ensure that a broadcaster would ``devote reasonable attention to the coverage of controversial issues of public importance.''

To do this, ``reasonable, although not necessarily equal,'' opportunities to express opposing views had to be afforded.

Since the rule's removal in 1987, however, the technological revolution has provided new outlets for people to voice their views. Thus critics of reinstating the doctrine - including many in the broadcast industry - believe government regulation isn't needed.

``The question is, who decides what is fair,'' says David Bartlett, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). ``An issue that's worth talking about has more than two sides, and the government decides after the fact which sides could be presented.''

The debate also revolves around personalities. Doctrine critics maintain that some lawmakers want to re-regulate the airwaves because of the rise of conservative talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

``This is an issue not about fairness, but about political control,'' says Doug Wills, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

Supporters, though, profess no political motive or interest in shaping the editorial content. They believe the airwaves are part of the public domain, and thus everyone should have access to them.

United States Rep. Edward Markey (D) of Massachusetts, a sponsor of the House bill reintroducing the doctrine, maintains: ``The [doctrine] does not allow the government to sit in judgment of the broadcaster's editorial judgment. It makes no requirement upon matters that are private or personal in nature, such as religious or moral views. This is not an onerous burden.''

Talk-show hosts have entered the fray on the side of the opponents, and they believe that they have the public's support. Blanquita Walsh Cullum, at WLEE Radio in Richmond, Va., says: ``The secret with talk radio that frightens people is that talk radio is not controllable.''

Washington lobbyists fighting the doctrine agree. ``The public doesn't want Jesse Helms or Ted Kennedy telling them what they should listen to,'' Mr. Bartlett says.

Critics also maintain that it can be costly to fight ``frivolous'' complaints. While many are simply thrown out, Bartlett says the average complaint has cost television stations $1 million and radio stations roughly $600,000 in legal fees when they chose to fight.

For many broadcasters, the debate is about constitutional rights. ``When I first started in this business, I worked under the Fairness Act. I don't do anything different today than I did then,'' says Paul Kyleof the National Association of Radio Talk Show Hosts.

Not all broadcasters are against the regulation, though. ``Any station that broadcasts Limbaugh has 21 other hours a day to put on other programs,'' says Peter Laufer, a news director at WWRC Radio in Washington. Airwaves are still public domain, he says.

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