More than three decades after the Fairness Doctrine was repealed by the Federal Communications Commission, the policy that required stations to provide equal time to both sides of an issue continues to find support in Congress. Sometimes it percolates up in an unusual place, such as during Thursday’s budget hearing featuring the head of the FCC. It was during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) put the blame for the current coarseness of the national political conversation at the feet of the FCC’s 1987 decision to do away with the Fairness Doctrine.
“Up until that time we never had one side or the other side—it was both sides,” Manchin said. He suggested Congress, rather than the FCC, should look at ways to revive such a policy for broadcasters to follow. “Something has to be done to save our country because right now we’re destroying each other—we’re pushed politically to the brinks of engagement,” Manchin said. “It worked up until that point of time and it’s gone to heck in a handbasket since.”
FCC chair Ajit Pai responded that he knows all too well about the “toxicity” of the current political environment, a reference to the death threats he and his family have received as a result of the Commission’s moves to repeal net neutrality regulations. But Pai said a new Fairness Doctrine isn’t the solution.
“Under the First Amendment there are substantial questions about whether the government should be involved in mediating that kind of public discourse, and when it comes to the FCC in particular, there are issues when the FCC intrudes on content regulation and decides this is too far,” Pai said. He suggested that a policy like the Fairness Doctrine is no longer required in the digital era, when the internet offers a platform for opinions on all sides of every debate with no role for the FCC. “I’m not sure it would be wise to have bureaucrats in Washington sitting in judgement about who is allowed to take a position in the public square,” Pai said.
Senator James Lankford (R-OK) agreed, saying no matter the well intentions of Fairness Doctrine supporters, the policy requires someone judging what radio and TV stations put on the airwaves. “Ultimately that’s somebody sitting in DC evaluating every broadcast, determining how many conservative thoughts were said and how many liberal thoughts were said and that just gets tough,” Lankford said. He suggested rather than passing a law requiring a balanced conversation, Congress lead by example. “The best thing we can do is model that, rather than legislate it,” Lankford said.
The hearing came less than a day after the Senate voted 52-47 to reverse the FCC’s decision to reverse the net neutrality regulations adopted during the Obama administration and that debate still hung in the air. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) accused Pai of showing “contempt” for the public with the FCC’s decision to roll back net neutrality regulations.
“You ignored the overwhelming public support for net neutrality. You’ve gone against the will of Congress by seeking to undermine media ownership rules, you engage in blatantly partisan activity,” Leahy said. “Too many people in this administration forget they serve all Americans, not just one person. Perhaps appearances at partisan political events or posting insulting videos with alt-right activists will ingratiate you to President Trump but I think we have to remember, Democrats and Republicans have to remember, we serve a higher cause, and that’s the American people.”
FCC Seeks ‘Slight Bump’ In Spending
The purpose of Pai’s appearance before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government was to detail his proposed FCC budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The FCC has requested $333,118,000 in spending in fiscal 2019, which would be paid for in part from regulatory fees paid by radio and other industries policed by the agency. Included in that tally is $50 million approved by Congress in March that will be used to provide funding to cover the costs incurred by FM stations impacted by the TV spectrum repack.
If approved, the FCC’s budget would grow 3% over the $322 million Congress gave the agency for the 2018 fiscal year. But Pai noted that with adjustments for inflation, the FCC’s budget has declined 17% since 2009.
“These reductions have required the Commission to operate more efficiently,” Pai said. That includes a 10% reduction in the number of full-time employees at the agency during the past two years. The 2019 budget would freeze staffing levels, however. “Further reductions in staffing would compromise the Commission’s ability to accomplish its mission,” Pai said, also noting the “importance of employee morale.”
The FCC’s budget proposal also includes $8.5 million in one-time expenses to modernize the agency’s IT system. Pai testified that some of that money will go to overhaul the Disaster Information Reporting System or “DIRS” which is the online system used by radio and television stations to inform the FCC of their status during a natural disaster. Pai said that “modest investment” in IT would “pay dividends in the long run.”