Broadcasters and lawmakers expect a showdown on the Senate floor this week over a recently scuttled Federal Communications Commission policy that required television and radio stations to air all sides of a major issue--the so-called Fairness Doctrine.
Most broadcasters say the Fairness Doctrine isn't fair at all. On the contrary, they charge, the 38-year-old policy so hamstrings many stations that they choose to air no controversial issues at all rather than be required to open their microphones to all responsible representatives of opposing points of view.
In August, the Federal Communications Commission finally agreed with the majority of broadcasters and abolished the Fairness Doctrine.
But last month, the controversial policy surfaced again in the Senate Commerce Committee, when Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) included the Fairness Doctrine as a part of the Senate's budget deficit reduction bill.
"We're working on the assumption that it will eventually go to a floor vote," said Walt Wurfel, public affairs spokesman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters. And that vote, he adds, will have to come before Congress recesses for the Thanksgiving holidays.
At issue is whether radio and television stations should be required to air opposing or divergent opinions and points of view on controversial topics of public importance.
Because control of television and radio is concentrated in the hands of a few professional broadcasters, access to the airwaves must be guaranteed by law, according to proponents of the Fairness Doctrine. Without it, station licensees could be tempted to air editorials, opinions and sensitive news programs without balancing the information with opposing points of view.
It is the Fairness Doctrine that prompts the standard disclaimer that follows most television and radio editorials in which station management acknowledges its responsibility to air opposing points of view.
Stations that grant air time to individuals and community leaders who oppose their editorials do so in accordance with the Fairness Doctrine.
Under the 53-year-old Federal Communications Act, broadcast frequencies are decreed to belong to the public. But because the frequencies are limited (there are currently only 10,046 radio stations and 1,285 television stations in the United States), the federal government licenses them to individuals and corporations with the condition that they will serve the public.
Supporters of the Fairness Doctrine, such as Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), say that the policy should become law to ensure that broadcast licensees do in fact serve the public by airing all sides of an issue.
"The policy being revived by Congress applies only to broadcasters under the theory that they are using a limited public resource: the electromagnetic spectrum," Markey aide Larry Irving told The Times.
Broadcasters have long argued that they deserve the same First Amendment press freedoms that newspapers enjoy.
To require a television or radio news operation to air all sides of an issue, even under the guise of fairness, is tantamount to threatening the station's license and casting a chilling pall over the editorial freedom of the licensee, argues the National Assn. of Broadcasters and other industry associations.
The handful of congressional voices who oppose the Fairness Doctrine go even further, alleging that Markey and other lawmakers who want the rule reinstated, are at least as interested in guaranteeing their own right to future equal time on television and radio as they are the right of the general public to air opposing points of view.
Last week, seven congressmen led by Rep. Thomas Tauke (R-Iowa) and Rep. W. J. Tauzin (D-La.) wrote a letter to their colleagues urging opposition to the Hollings measure on grounds that the government should not put itself in the position of second-guessing broadcasters' editorial discretion.
Even apparently harmless invocations of the Fairness Doctrine have forced responsible radio and TV stations to put crackpots on the air, Fairness Doctrine opponents argue.
As the hard-of-hearing character Emily Latella on "Saturday Night Live," comedian Gilda Radnor used to regularly satirize the Fairness Doctrine by presenting a point of view that completely misrepresented the original intent of an editorial. Thus, she would condemn an editorial defending "endangered species" because she had heard it as "endangered feces."
"Never mind," she would tell the audience after being advised that she had misheard the original editorial.
"We've now talked with 97 senators," the NAB's Wurfel said last week. "We have groups of state broadcast associations meeting with them every day and we're working both the House and Senate."