Federal Communications Commission Chairman Mark Fowler's campaign to strike down the fairness doctrine is marching on.
Fowler, once dubbed the "Mad Monk of Deregulation," has long contended that the doctrine, which requires broadcasters to present at least two sides of controversial issues, is a cumbersome intrusion on broadcasters' free speech and is no longer needed in this age of increasingly diverse media outlets, such as cable and direct-broadcast satellites.
Last year, Fowler launched a commission inquiry to determine, among other things, if the doctrine should be abolished and whether the FCC has the power to do so.
On Capitol Hill, such key members as House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Timothy J. Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee, have made clear that they think only Congress has the power to play with the fairness doctrine.
But that isn't stopping Fowler. He has scheduled a major public hearing on the issue on Feb. 7, complete with a promised all-star cast of political leaders, constitutional scholars and interest-group representatives.
Although a number of big names haven't said yet whether they will attend, Equal Rights Amendment opponent Phyllis Schlafly, First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams and conservative media watchdog Reed Irvine have already signed up to testify.
Look for the FCC to issue a decision not long after the hearing.
"Mark's pretty hot on this," said chief agency spokesman Bill Russell. "I think he wants to move pretty quickly."
Footnote: Although Fowler's approach is generally associated with a conservative laissez-faire philosophy, the chairman is unlikely to find much support from some conservatives at the hearing. Schlafly and Irvine are expected to support retaining the doctrine on the grounds that it is needed as a check on the power of the "liberal" television networks. NEW ERA ON THE HILL . . .
Of course any move to modify or abolish the doctrine would almost certainly produce another clash between the FCC and Capitol Hill. But the watchword at the agency is cooperation with Congress, rather than confrontation.
Consider, for example, Fowler's carefully wrought compromise with Hill leaders on the 12-station rule, which has increased from seven to 12 the number of television stations a media group may own. To counter fears that this would give the television networks too much power, Fowler agreed to a key amendment that would place an additional limit on media companies, ensuring that the 12 stations they own can't reach more than 25 percent of the national viewing audience.
In addition, Fowler has informed the Hill that he will drop his effort to eliminate the agency's financial-interest and syndication rules, which prohibit the television networks from owning a share of prime-time programs or syndicated reruns. The FCC's vote to abolish the rules last year was strongly opposed by many members of Congress, largely because of intensive lobbying orchestrated by Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Fowler has also rejuggled his legislative-affairs staff. The six-person division has been transferred from the general counsel's office to Russell's division, which has been renamed the Office of Congressional and Public Affairs. In addition, Ray Strassburger, a former Washington lobbyist for the Times Mirror Corp., has been hired as a special legislative liaison to the House and Senate Commerce committees.
Also, Jerald Fritz, former chief of the FCC's Tariff Division, has become Fowler's chief of staff. He replaces Randy Nichols, now vice president and general counsel of Communications Satellite Corp.