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Broadcasters prevail in 20-year fight against fairness doctrine

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    NMU         WASHINGTON, D.C.         Broadcasting         Oct 12, 2000    

Broadcasters prevail in 20-year fight against fairness doctrine

  • The failure of the FCC to justify its enforcement of personal attack and editorializing rules led to a federal appeals court’s decision in favor of immediate repeal.

After months of inactivity by the Federal Communications Commission, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. took extraordinary action yesterday in ordering the commission to immediately repeal its 33-year-old personal attack and political editorial rules, parts of the otherwise-dormant fairness doctrine.

The failure of the FCC to justify imposing the regulations on broadcasters actually dates back to 1980 when the plaintiffs, the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, first challenged the regulations. At that time, the federal appeals court acknowledged the rules have some effect on speech as well as interfere with a broadcaster’s editorial decisions.

One week ago, the FCC responded to the broadcasters’ renewed objection with an order temporarily suspending the rules for 60 days, which corresponded with the remainder of the presidential campaign. The commission said it would collect information from broadcasters to assist in its analysis of the effectiveness of the rules.

In its opinion, written by Circuit Judge Judith Rogers, the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. (D.C. Circuit) scoffed at the agency’s claim it needed more time to review the rules. The suspension order only compounds the problem by not providing any relief to the RTNDA and NAB and permitting the FCC to proceed without any assurance of an imminent justification of the rules, Rogers wrote.

“If these circumstances do not constitute agency action unreasonably delayed, it is difficult to imagine circumstances that would,” Rogers wrote for the two-judge panel.

In Dec. 1999 the same court asked two commissioners to explain why they supported the doctrine. Four commissioners had split on whether to repeal the rules, leaving them in effect.

The FCC concluded in 1985 the fairness doctrine did not serve the public interest. Two years later it decided it would not enforce the fairness doctrine.

The plaintiffs, who represent members of the news media, have long argued the fairness doctrine outlived its usefulness. The broadcasters have told the court the rules, enacted in 1967, intended to diversify broadcast viewpoints. In the years since, the broadcasters continue, the explosion of news outlets has afforded viewers numerous alternative sources of information.

The personal attack and the political editorial rules gave people or identifiable groups the opportunity to respond to broadcasts with opposing viewpoints.

(Radio-Television News Directors Association and National Association of Broadcasters v. Federal Communications Commission; Media Counsel: Daniel Troy, Washington, D.C.) SM

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