The Fairness Doctrine: What Does It Mean?

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WASHINGTON -- Does the Fairness Doctrine offer balance to talk radio dominated by conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh or does it stifle free speech?

It is a question that's created controversy since it was implemented in 1949. The Federal Communications Commission abolished it in 1987, but some broadcasters fear pieces of the Fairness Doctrine are on the way back.

"If you let the government determine which speech is controversial and which isn't.worse than that, if you let the political appointees in any particular government administration make those decisions, you're just setting up a framework for abuse," said Dr. Frank Wright, President and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters or NRB.

Wright and the leaders at the NRB are preparing for battle.

The association's 1,400 member stations fear a reinstatement of even portions of the doctrine would require Christian stations to present viewpoints from other religions. Something they believe violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which guarantees the freedom of speech and religion.

"It's anything, but the Fairness Doctrine," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC. "We call it the Unfair Doctrine,".

DeMint has pushed legislation through the Senate that prohibits the doctrine's return. However, another amendment, sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin, is also being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives.

The bill reads that the Federal Communications Commission or FCC shall encourage and promote diversity in communications media ownership and ensure broadcast licenses are used in the public interest.

Democratic staffers say the language reaffirms longstanding policies, but DeMint doesn't buy it.

"For all we know, diversity of ownership for a Christian station would mean atheists, Muslims, people of all kinds of beliefs which are…it could be different sexual preferences," he explained. "We just don't know."

Since the Fairness Doctrine was never law to begin with, only a regulation, some believe the real fight will transpire inside the FCC, an agency that's in transition with the new administration. Still others say cries over a Fairness Doctrine comeback are unwarranted.

Dr. Christopher Sterling at George Washington University worked at the FCC while the doctrine was in place.

"You'll find people on the right and the left who agree that government ought to stay out of content," he said.

Still, groups like the National Religious Broadcasters aren't taking chances. Instead, they're working hard to ensure the Fairness Doctrine remains part of broadcast history.

*Originally published April 17, 2009

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Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News White House Correspondent

Jennifer Wishon is the White House correspondent for CBN News based in the network’s Washington, D.C. Bureau.  Before taking over the White House beat, Jennifer covered Capitol Hill and other national news, from the economy to the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @JenniferWishon and "like" her at