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Senate Debates The Fairness Doctrine Anew

October 26, 1987|DENNIS McDOUGAL | Times Staff Writer

While the Reagan Administration held the Fairness Doctrine down in its coffin, the Federal Communications Commission drove a stake through its heart two months ago.

Last week, the Fairness Doctrine sprang back out of the grave and onto the Senate floor.

"It's like Dr. Frankenstein," said Bob Witeck, an aide to Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), the Fairness Doctrine's most outspoken congressional opponent. "They're putting life back into a lifeless body."

The 38-year-old regulation that once required the country's 10,046 radio and 1,285 television stations to present divergent views on controversial issues of public importance is quickly becoming the vampire of FCC policy: It will not die.

President Reagan vetoed a bill that would have made it law last summer and the FCC abolished it altogether in August.

But last week, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted 12-5 to write the Fairness Doctrine into law and to make violators pay a penalty equal to 1% of the sale price of their station if and when they try to transfer their FCC license.

The proposal calls for them to pay a transfer fee in any case. As approved by the committee, broadcasters who hold their license longer than three years would pay 2% of the station's sale price to transfer licenses to new owners. Station owners who sell within three years of having purchased the facility would pay 4%. All stations would pay an additional 1% if they have "willfully violated the Fairness Doctrine."

According to Commerce Committee staff counsel John Windhausen, the transfer-fee scheme would generate $340 million each year to help pay off the national deficit. It would also make the Fairness Doctrine federal law.

The two-pronged measure drew immediate opposition from the National Assn. of Broadcasters.

"We're going hellbent against both (the Fairness Doctrine and the transfer fee increase)," said Walt Wurfel, the organization's senior vice president for public affairs. "We're lobbying against them, activating our grass-roots organization and calling and visiting and phoning members of the Senate."

He said the association views the fee schedule as a hidden tax aimed against broadcasters, and the Fairness Doctrine codification as a deliberate skirting of the public-hearing process.

Opposition to the Fairness Doctrine has been longstanding policy at the association, based on the pretext that broadcasters ought to be as free of federal regulation of their content as newspapers.

Fairness Doctrine proponents hold that the electronic media differ from the print media because the broadcast airwaves are limited and subject to government oversight.

"If Congress wants to legislate public-policy issues, they should do it with a public hearing," he said. "It appears that they are trying to legislate through the financial budgeting process."

According to Windhausen, the proposal was a last-minute amendment tacked on to a general budget-reduction bill by the committee chairman, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.).

"Hollings was under the gun to raise some money, and when it came down to crunch time, he called saying, 'This is what we're going to do: Get ready,' " Windhausen said.

Witick said that Packwood will lead the fight on the Senate floor to remove the Fairness Doctrine item from the Hollings bill, but Packwood himself told a forum on broadcast licensing in Washington last week that there are currently not enough votes in Congress to stop it. He said he hopes the courts find the doctrine unconstitutional if it does become law.

The Fairness Doctrine "is not good policy," he said, echoing the FCC's concerns that it imposed an unconstitutional constraint on broadcast newsrooms and hindered coverage of important issues in violation of the First Amendment.

Larry Irving, aide to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), said that the chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee will support the Hollings measure. Markey, who helped author the Fairness Doctrine bill that Reagan vetoed, is also studying other ways of making the doctrine law before the congressional session ends Nov. 20.

"If there are any problems, though we don't anticipate any, then we are going to find other viable vehicles to codify it," Irving said. "There is strong bipartisan and bicameral support to see it pass this year."

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