Could ‘Fairness Doctrine’ Be Used to Police the Internet?

(FOXNEWS)   Media analysts and bloggers are warning that fresh efforts to bring back the so-called Fairness Doctrine could go too far, following a report that one prominent Democrat is looking into ways to apply the media control standards to the Internet.

The Fairness Doctrine is a policy created decades ago but abolished in the late 1980s that required broadcasters to provide opposing views on controversial issues.

While some Democrats have talked about reviving the policy, The American Spectator reported Monday that Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is taking the call to a new level. The article said aides to the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee met last week with Federal Communications Commission staff to discuss ways to not only enact those policies but give Waxman’s panel greater oversight over the Internet.

"It’s all about diversity in media," the Spectator quoted a House energy committee staff member as saying. "Does one radio station or one station group control four of the five most powerful outlets in one community? … Does one heavily trafficked Internet site present one side of an issue and not link to sites that present alternative views?"

The committee vigorously denied the report. A spokesperson called the account "fictitious" in a statement to FOX News.

"The American Spectator report is false and was written without any documentation or attribution," the statement said.

FCC spokesman David Fiske also disputed the claims in the piece, saying, "We’re not sure that it’s an accurate article."

Analysts treated the report with a dose of skepticism as well — but noted that the idea is not entirely foreign. Robert McDowell, the current FCC commissioner and a Bush appointee, warned in an interview last year that Fairness Doctrine advocates might try to extend their policies to the Web.

If that is the case, foes and supporters of the doctrine alike say policing fairness on the Internet will prove impossible. Plus they say it’s unnecessary and well beyond the scope of the original policy.

"This borders between stupidity and sheer insanity," said conservative radio talk show host Mike Gallagher, when told about the Spectator report. "I can’t wait until they try to monitor how many conservative posts are on a thread versus how many liberal posts are on a thread."

He added that Democrats would be only neutralizing dominant liberal blogs that currently help them. He predicted any move to extend Fairness Doctrine principles to the Web would "blow sky high."

The Fairness Doctrine was adopted in 1949 and held that broadcasters were obligated to provide opposing points of views on controversial issues of national importance. It was halted under the Reagan administration.

The policy is the scourge of conservative radio hosts, who say it would allow the federal government to skew content on their programs. Democratic lawmakers, some of whom have renewed the call to reinstate the doctrine in recent weeks, say it would bring accountability to the airwaves and help increase the number of liberal shows in a landscape dominated by conservatives like Rush Limbaugh.

Steve Rendall, a Fairness Doctrine supporter and senior analyst with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, said liberals and conservatives both over-state the impact the doctrine would have on media content.

He said most talk shows, even those on the right, already comply with the requirements, which he said tread "very lightly" and do not call for absolute balance on the airwaves.

But he said there is "no justification" for applying the doctrine to the Internet, or any other form of media — since the doctrine was only meant to apply standards to the privileged holders of limited broadcast licenses. The Internet, by contrast, has infinite outlets for opinion.

"Cable and Internet are, at least theoretically, limitless in the number of voices that they can present, and it’s not at all the same as broadcast," Rendall said.

Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center, said it would be "impossible" to regulate balance and neutrality on the Internet. He said he thinks Democrats eventually want to bring those standards to the Web but are struggling to rally the political will to revisit the Fairness Doctrine.

He said any legislative efforts to reinstate it will probably occur behind closed doors, since doing it out in the open could cause political repercussions.

The Spectator reported that Waxman’s advisers were discussing ways to implement Fairness Doctrine policies without actually calling it the "Fairness Doctrine."

Other Democrats have openly called for a modern-day Fairness Doctrine in recent weeks, though they were referring more to radio than the Internet.

"I absolutely think it’s time to be bringing accountability to the airwaves," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told liberal radio host Bill Press two weeks ago. She said she expects hearings soon on reviving the policy, though her office has reportedly backed off that prediction. (Stabenow’s husband, Tom Athans, is and has been an executive at several liberal radio talk groups.)

And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told Press last week: "We gotta get the Fairness Doctrine back in law again."

During the presidential campaign, a spokesman said then-candidate Barack Obama did not favor reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. But Obama’s White House aides are now leaving open the question.

Asked if the White House would rule out imposing the doctrine on "FOX News Sunday," senior adviser David Axelrod ducked.

"I’m going to leave that issue to Julius Genachowski, our new head of the FCC … and the president to discuss. So I don’t have an answer for you now," he said.

Despite the speculation, nobody has introduced a bill this session to reinstate those policies.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe introduced a bill this year to prevent reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine.

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