The Federal Communications Commission, at its meeting today, plans to abolish its 38-year-old policy requiring broadcasters to air all sides of controversial public issues, agency sources said yesterday.
The decision to repeal the Fairness Doctrine -- long opposed by broadcasters and the administration but supported by a broad range of public interest groups -- comes a month and a half after President Reagan vetoed legislation that would have made the policy law.
The Senate failed to override the veto, but Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) have said they plan to attach the doctrine in September to legislation Reagan will be loath to veto.
The FCC decision, expected to be unanimous, is already drawing a storm of protest from citizen groups and Congress, where Hollings accused the agency of "repudiating the intent of Congress."
FCC sources would not reveal details of the decision, but it was widely expected to include a statement that the Fairness Doctrine is unconstitutional because it violates broadcasters' First Amendment rights.
Before the vote, the agency planned to release a report to Congress analyzing the doctrine. A House panel had ordered the commission to submit the report before taking any action on the policy.
"Congress won't like it," said an FCC official who asked not to be identified.
Broadcasting magazine quoted one unidentified commission official as saying, "Every newscaster in the country will feel emancipated if it comes out as expected."
The Fairness Doctrine was set forth by the FCC in 1949 and included in part in 1959 amendments to the Communications Act. The policy states that broadcasters must air controversial issues of public importance and provide reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views.
The Supreme Court upheld the doctrine in its famous Red Lion decision in 1967, but the court opened the door last year for its reconsideration by ruling that the policy was never made law.
The FCC said it was forced to take a stand on the doctrine after a federal appeals court in January remanded the agency's decision against Meredith Corp., an Iowa broadcasting company whose Syracuse, N.Y., TV station WTVH violated the policy.
In the Meredith case, the FCC had refused to consider whether the Fairness Doctrine was constitutional, saying Congress and the courts should decide.
"But the court made it very clear that the commission could no longer defer to Congress," an FCC official said.
Leaders of the House and Senate, both of which voted by wide margins to make the doctrine law, disagreed.
"It's going to be war," predicted Larry Irving, counsel of the House telecommunications subcommittee. "The commission is a creature of Congress but is taking on Congress on this issue, trying to contravene congressional action. It's a renegade commission."
Advocates of the Fairness Doctrine say TV and radio stations must meet some minimal public interest requirements because they use a scarce public resource -- the electromagnetic spectrum. They say many more people apply for licenses than there are available frequencies.
Opponents say the doctrine was first drafted when television was in its infancy and that the telecommunications marketplace has changed. Now there are more stations, plus cable television, microwave TV services and home satellite dishes, providing more outlets for differing views