The Federal Communications Commission, reflecting the impact of its new Reagan appointees, asked Congress yesterday to repeal the Fairness Doctrine and equal-time rules that govern the nation's broadcasting industry.
The recommendations represent the first time in the 47-year history of the federal Communications Act that the FCC has sought to end the rules that are the basis for the agency's handling of political fairness and campaign issues. The vote was 4 to 2.
It is uncertain whether Congress will act on the commission recommendations. There was no immediate comment from the Senate's Republican leadership. However, Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of a House telecommunications subcommittee, said the FCC is "wrong" to consider these issues as "simple deregulation measures," adding that the equal-time law and Fairness Doctrine are unlikely to be quickly abolished by Congress.
FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, a lawyer for Ronald Reagan's 1976 and 1980 campaign organizations, said the two provisions were based on "bankrupt concepts." Fowler said the "time has come to eliminate a large burden on freedom of speech."
The broadcasting industry has for many years argued that the laws deny the free-speech rights granted newspapers under the First Amendment. A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters hailed yesterday's commission action.
But the action drew sharp criticism from citizen groups and others. The two laws "enhance the First Amendment by giving people holding dissenting or not widely held viewpoints an opportunity to express them," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, director of the Media Access Project, and a spokesman for a coalition fighting the proposal. The group includes the United Auto Workers, the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting and the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ.
Arthur Ginsburg, who left his post as chief of the FCC's Complaints and Compliance Division last year after 20 years with the agency, called the action a "sham and a fraud that plays upon the public's ignorance."
"If you wipe out the Fairness Doctrine, the richest and most powerful organizations will have their say and you'll never hear the other side of a particular issue," said Ginsburg, now a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Texas.
In essence, the issue in the debate is the government's role in regulating the over-the-air content in radio and television. The historic premise of the two laws is the notion of "scarcity," the view that since the broadcast spectrum is limited, the government has a major role to play in insuring that the electronic media carry multiple points of view.
The Fairness Doctrine requires broadcasters to air controversial topics and to present differing viewpoints, and the equal-time law forces licensees who put candidates on the air to grant equal opportunities to other candidates for the office.
In addition, the FCC voted to ask Congress to repeal a provision of the Communications Act that specifically guarantees broadcast time to candidates for federal office, a provision certain to rankle congressional leaders. Further, the commission agreed to recommend that the Justice Department, rather than FCC regulators, investigate obscenity, lottery and fraud charges against broadcasters.
The actions are the clearest statement yet by the leadership of a newly revamped FCC of the intention to combine free-market economics with broadcast deregulation.
"It's right for the country," Fowler said. "I'm proud of this commission . . . . "
The opposition of Fowler and the rest of the commission majority to the laws is based on the fact that the members believe the medium is no longer one bounded by scarce resources.
Fowler argued that with the growth of radio, the development of cable television, satellites, tapes, and other new media forms, there are far more broadcast outlets in communities around the country than newspapers.
But Commissioners Joseph Fogarty and Abbott Washburn disagreed. Fogarty noted that his home does not have access to cable or any of the new distribution technologies.