CLARIFICATION: Quotations in a report yesterday about the Federal Communications Commission decision to repeal the "Fairness Doctrine" made it appear that the decision also affected the equal-time provision for political candidates. Equal opportunities for response by candidates are protected by law with exemptions for coverage of bona fide newscasts, interviews, documentaries and on-the-spot events. (Published 8/6/87)

The Federal Communications Commission agreed unanimously yesterday to abolish the "fairness doctrine," which has required the nation's radio and television broadcasters since 1949 to air conflicting views on important public issues.

The decision was cause for celebration in the television and radio industry, whose spokesmen said the doctrine often did the opposite of what the FCC originally intended by forcing stations to avoid controversial issues altogether.

"With today's decision, the FCC ended 38 years of formalized government intrusion into the First Amendment freedoms of broadcast journalists," said Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents more than 5,000 radio stations, 940 television stations and the major networks.

The decision, which is expected to release stations from the "fairness" requirements officially next week, also angered several key members of Congress and set the stage for what could be a second congressional effort this year to turn the doctrine into law.

"The American people, not the broadcasters, own the airwaves," said Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "The threat today is that private interests, more motivated by profit than public interest, may limit public discourse."

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, accused the FCC of not keeping its word to Congress that a report on the fairness doctrine would be submitted before action was taken. Minutes before agreeing to scrap the doctrine, FCC members voted to send a report to Congress.

"In the Nixonian sense, I think it's tricky," said Dingell, adding that Congress will respond but not before the August recess expected to start Friday.

President Reagan, a former broadcaster who has said the doctrine violates constitutional guarantees of a free press, last month vetoed a congressional attempt to make the fairness doctrine law.

The doctrine, which states that "a broadcast licensee shall afford reasonable opportunity for the discussion of conflicting views on issues of public importance," has evolved primarily through FCC and court decisions.

It most often affects public-issue broadcasts, advertising and entertainment programs. The FCC has exempted news programs, most political debates and public-affairs interview programs.

Jerome Nachman, general manager of WRC-TV Channel 4, said that, without the doctrine, "viewers and listeners will see and hear very little change. As in the newspaper business, fairness is an ethical issue to which journalists just subscribe to now."

If the doctrine is not in effect during the 1988 political campaign, Nachman said entertainers such as Johnny Carson and David Letterman could have one candidate on the air without giving time to competitors.

"In 1984, other than in a bona fide newscast, you could not show a Ronald Reagan movie," he said. "The reason you didn't try was because you knew all sorts of candidates would then seek equal time."

FCC Chairman Dennis Patrick said the doctrine causes the most problems for broadcasters that lack resources to fight a license challenge based on a dispute about an issue covered on the air. Such challenges are often lengthy and require hiring an attorney here to defend the station.

"We have 60 examples of individual broadcasters who describe their decision to decline to cover issues of importance for fear doing so might give rise to a fairness dispute," he said.

NAB spokesman Walter Wurfel said that, when the doctrine was formalized in 1949, the nation had 95 television stations and about 2,000 radio stations. Now there are 1,300 television stations and slightly more than 10,000 radio stations in the United States, he said.

Supporters of the doctrine also include political advocates with a variety of views. Phyllis Schlafly, president of the conservative Eagle Forum, has praised the doctrine for helping to make her profamily views known nationally.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader said the commission demolished the core of the federal communications law "that broadcasters using public property are public trustees with an obligation to inform."

Nachman said, "People on the fringe, or regrettably people who perceive themselves as being on the fringe, like this regulation because they think they couldn't get {on the air} without it. That's wrong. Ralph Nader will be as newsworthy after the fairness doctrine as he was before."