Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee wants to make sure a top FCC Democrat isn't signaling a return of the fairness doctrine.
In a letter to Federal Communications Commissions commissioner Michael Copps, a copy of which was obtained by Multichannel News, Barton asked for the answers to three questions by Dec. 13, the first of which is whether Copps believes the commission should reinstate the doctrine, which required broadcasters to seek out both sides on issues of public importance. The FCC dropped the doctrine in 1987 as unconstitutional.
Barton was responding to a Copps speech at Columbia University last week at which he said that the FCC should administer a "public value test" for news delivered by local broadcasters and take away the licenses of broadcasters who don't pass the test so they can go to "someone who will use it to serve the public interest."
Copps has argued for a four-year, rather than the current eight-year, license renewal cycle and for a return to the days when the FCC was supposed to actively ascertain whether broadcasters were serving the public interest. "If a station passes the Public Value Test," he argued in his speech, "it of course keeps the license it has earned to use the people's airwaves. If not, it goes on probation for a year, renewable for an additional year if it demonstrates measurable progress. If the station fails again, give the license to someone who will use it to serve the public interest."
Copps had a laundry list of suggested right answers to that value test, including "meaningful commitments to news and public affairs programming," enhanced political ad disclosures, more diversity, and more local and independent programming.
Barton said in his letter that Copps was free to hold and express his opinions, but wanted to make sure that Copps was not suggesting it was the government's job "to determine the content that is available for Americans to consumer."
In addition to the answer about the Fairness Doctrine, Barton wants to know whether Copps is suggesting a return to the FCC's "ascertainment rules," which were dropped as part of Reagan-era deregulation, and whether Copps believes that "five commissioners can do a better job of ensuring that Americans have access to a wide diversity of content and viewpoints than Americans can themselves."
Barton had already answered that question in the first paragraph of his letter, when he advised: "I do not believe the subjective opinions of five unelected officials should hold sway over the content broadcasters air or the licenses they hold."
Copps has long argued for a stronger FCC role in insuring broadcasters meet their public interest requirement, but he has also long argued that those reforms are not an effort restore the doctrine. "The Fairness Doctrine is long gone and it's not coming back," he said in the May 2009 speech at the Newseum about the need for reform.
Barton is a candidate for the powerful chairmanship of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC. Chairs are expected to be elected by this Wednesday (Dec. 8), according to the office of soon-to-be house speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).