Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson remembers hosting The 700 Club in the days before the "fairness doctrine" was lifted—and he doesn't want to go back. A Federal Communications Commission rule that was in effect until 1987, the fairness doctrine required TV and radio stations to provide contrasting points of view to controversial opinions. If a station failed to balance a conservative argument from Robertson or his guests with a liberal one, viewers or listeners could file a complaint with the FCC, which might force the station to either comply or risk losing its license.
"It was a sword of Damocles constantly hanging over us," says Robertson, who recalls hiring a team of lawyers to fend off the FCC when a viewer challenged his assertion that there were only 5,000 Jews in the United States around the time of its founding. When the fairness doctrine was informally lifted, under the Reagan-era FCC, Robertson got more political on the air, launching a presidential campaign that same year. "We didn't have to censor what we said anymore," he says.
Now, more than two decades later, with right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity in firm control of talk radio and Democrats back in control of Washington, conservatives have begun worrying that the fairness doctrine could make a comeback. And none more than conservative Christian broadcasters like Robertson. Fretting over the fairness doctrine's revival dominated conversations at this month's annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, a trade group with 1,400 member organizations, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Focus on the Family. Evangelical groups like the Family Research Council have already begun notifying supporters of the possible change, while Christian legal advocate and radio host Jay Sekulow has collected more than 75,000 signatures for an anti-fairness doctrine petition.
Though most secular commercial broadcasters also oppose reinstating the fairness doctrine, Christian stations are more sensitive to the issue because they say it would force them to carry views they consider unbiblical, like the legitimacy of other religions or liberal stances on social issues. "The revival of the fairness doctrine is an existential threat to Christian radio," says Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican and a former talk radio host who has introduced a bill that would permanently bar the fairness doctrine. "Requiring Christian stations to carry competing worldviews on issues like marriage and sanctity of life—these stations are ministries, and it's not something they're prepared to do."
There is no apparent legislative drive to revive the fairness doctrine in Congress, and a spokesman for President Barack Obama said this week that he did not support bringing it back, but several high-profile Democrats have begun calling for its return. Last year, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled her support and has declined to schedule a vote for Pence's bill (her office didn't return a call for comment). Earlier this month, former President Bill Clinton said in a radio interview that "you either ought to have the fairness doctrine or we ought to have more balance on the other side."
And most recently, senior White House adviser David Axelrod pointedly refused to rule out an Obama-led reprise of the fairness doctrine, telling Fox News Sunday he was "going to leave that issue" to newly appointed FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the president. "I don't have an answer for you now," he said.
Other Democrats, though, say reports of the fairness doctrine's second coming have been exaggerated by conservative opinion shapers looking to stir up their base. (Privately, some conservative activists acknowledge that the threat appears remote.) The anti-fairness doctrine campaign, liberals allege, is intended to tarnish other proposals aimed at bringing ideological balance to the airwaves, which are publicly owned and which the Communications Act of 1934 require "to operate in the public interest." A recent report on the subject by the liberal Center for American Progress recommended restoring ownership caps on stations, expanding the role for local listeners in radio licensing, and charging fees to stations that shirk public interest obligations. "No one is advocating a return to the fairness doctrine," says John Halpin, one of the report's authors. "We have no interest in taking anyone off the air."
The report found that 91 percent of weekday talk radio on the top five news/talk chains is conservative. Rather than censor those voices, Halpin says he wants to add more viewpoints to radio, especially local ones, including churches.
But religious broadcasters call such proposals a "stealth fairness doctrine." The public interest, they say, is best served by treating radio and television waves as a free market, where competing opinions vie for audience share. "It's dangerous to wrest control from station managers and put it in the hands of a few Washington bureaucrats," says National Religious Broadcasters general counsel Craig Parshall. Earlier this week, the conservative American Spectator reported that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Harry Waxman is studying ways to "enforce fairness doctrine-type policies" like those contained in the Center for American Progress report. Which means that a fight over the future of radio may not be so far off after all.