A parade of witnesses, including network television executives and prominent broadcast journalists, asked the Federal Communications Commission yesterday to abolish the so-called "fairness doctrine" on the grounds that it is an antiquated and "intolerable" abridgement of free speech.
The strongly worded appeals came during the first of two days of FCC public hearings into the fairness doctrine, which has long been one of the cornerstones of federal regulation of broadcasting.
The doctrine, which dates back to at least 1949, requires broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance. FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, suggesting that the doctrine may no longer be needed in today's more diverse media marketplace, last year persuaded the agency's commissioners to launch a formal inquiry that would examine the statutory and philosophical basis for the doctrine.
That proceeding has turned into one of the more emotional issues before the FCC. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who heads the House committee with jurisdiction over the agency, said earlier this week that the doctrine is "absolutely fundamental" to preserve free speech on the airwaves. Dingell blasted the FCC for what he called its "radical" ideological views in seeking to end it.
But in a series of "round-table discussions" before the agency's five commissioners yesterday, network spokesmen and leading broadcast journalists such as Eric Severaid contended that the doctrine actually serves to inhibit, rather than promote, a free and robust airing of sensitive issues.
CBS Vice President Ralph E. Goldberg noted that only a few months ago, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency attempted to use the fairness doctrine to "punish" ABC News for a news broadcast. Although the CIA's complaint has since been dismissed by the FCC, Goldberg said the potential for fairness doctrine abuse is "intolerable."
"The very idea of journalists having to justify to a government agency what they choose to publish or not to publish is at odds with the concept of a free and independent press," Goldberg said. "Why not amend the Constitution and establish a Federal Newspaper Commission to oversee the fairness of the print press?"
In addition, Sis Kaplan, an official with the National Radio Broadcasters Association, said that many small broadcasters today will choose not to air a controversial show for fear that a disgruntled advocacy group will file a complaint with the FCC.
"It has a chilling effect," Kaplan said. "They don't want to go through a process at the FCC, which most broadcasters cannot afford the legal fees to do."
But former FCC chairman Charles Ferris argued that most broadcasters would not air controversial viewpoints anyway because their advertisers "don't want to be associated with the unpopular, with that which is out of vogue. . . . So it would be unrealistic to submit that the removal of the fairness doctrine would let a hundred flowers bloom."
Although much of yesterday's debate touched on the philosophical underpinnings of the rule, FCC officials acknowledged that the inquiry is not likely to result in an immediate agency move to eliminate the it. The problem, according to both critics and supporters, is that the doctrine has been effectively incorporated into the law by Congress. As a result, it would require an act of Congress, not the FCC, to abolish it.
But, one agency official noted, the testimony being gathered by the FCC will prove useful to the rule's opponents in mounting a court challenge. Opponents of the doctrine believe that the growth in the number of radio and television stations -- from about 2,965 in 1950 to about 10,422 today -- and the proliferation of new media outlets, such as cable and direct broadcast satellites, has undermined the arguments that the doctrine is needed to ensure that the public has access to diverse viewpoints.