The Fairness Doctrine and religious broadcasters

fairnessPerhaps this reveals too much about my sailor-like vocabulary, but you have to like a religion story that begins with the F-word. The Tennessean religion reporter Bob Smietana began his story on the National Religious Broadcasters Convention this week as follows:

The three F's were hot topics at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention on Tuesday.

That's the First Amendment, the Fairness Doctrine and "the F-word."

First up -- the Fairness Doctrine, a Federal Communications Commission policy that required broadcasters to air controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was judged to be honest, equitable, and balanced. It is frequently confused with the Equal Time rule, which requires stations that give free air time to one candidate to provide the same service to their opponent.

Back to the story:

Religious broadcasters fear the Obama administration plans to meddle with their programs by resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine, a now-defunct Federal Communications Commission policy that required broadcasters to give equal time to opposing points of view.

Equal time is a problem for religious broadcasters, Christian talk show host Janet Parshall said.

"If I happen to say declaratively that the Bible tells me that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and nobody comes to the Father but by Him, I am not interested in giving equal time to Buddha, Hinduism, or L. Ron Hubbard," she said.

The Fairness Doctrine was mothballed in the mid-1980s. But some Democrats have called for its reinstatement. Parshall, who moderated the discussion between Starr and Strossen, pointed to recent comments by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat.

Speaking on the Bill Press radio show, Stabenow said, "I think it's absolutely time to pass a standard. Now, whether it's called the Fairness Standard, whether it's called something else -- I absolutely think it's time to be bringing accountability to the airwaves."

It seems like the Equal Time rule and Fairness Doctrine are conflated a bit but you get the point. Anyway, Sen. Stabenow is married to Tom Athans, the executive vice president of Air America. Air America specializes in politically liberal talk-radio programming.

The story discusses the three Fs by describing a debate at the conference between Pepperdine University law school dean Ken Starr and former American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen. Starr argued that the Fairness Doctrine violates the First Amendment, saying the government has no business dictating content to broadcasters. Strossen agrees that the Fairness Doctrine is not a good idea but only because it's outmoded in today's media-rich environment. Previously, the ACLU defended the Fairness Doctrine. Both agreed that in the past the doctrine was used by administrations to punish critics.

The story does a great job of exploring the issue from the perspective of the religious broadcasters:

The doctrine is particularly touchy for evangelical religious broadcasters. They formed the National Religious Broadcasters association in the 1940s, when networks refused to sell them airtime, instead giving time to the mainstream Federal Council of Churches, forerunner of the National Council of Churches.

"Years ago, people did not want us to proclaim the purity of the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ," Parshall told the forum audience. "We were formed as an entity to give us access to the airwaves."

The only radio station ever shut down for violating the Fairness Doctrine was a Christian station in Red Lion, Pa. In 1964, that station carried a "Christian Crusade" program, on which the Rev. Billy James Hargis criticized Fred J. Cook, author of Goldwater -- Extremist on the Right. When Cook asked for airtime to respond, the station refused. He reported the station to the FCC, and the Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor.

I used to be a radio industry reporter and I never knew that a radio station had been shut down over the Fairness Doctrine. I love learning something like this in a news report. Also, please note that the "religious left" and "religious right" division didn't begin during the last presidential campaign. Anyway, the story goes on to note that Strossen and Starr disagree about the F-word.

I also liked how the story discussed whether laws that restrict religious speech -- such as sermons on sexuality -- are likely to be adopted here in the United States. They're not, according to the panelists.

Even though I was aware of attempts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, I hadn't thought of how it might affect religious broadcasters. I'm so glad The Tennessean took up the issue on a topic that has been well covered on opinion pages but undercovered in news pages.

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