WASHINGTON, DC -- As of today, the Fairness Doctrine, an FCC policy which sparked plenty of debate in the 1980s and again in recent years, has been deleted from the FCC regulations. Longtime residents of Central New York may remember that one of the biggest legal cases leading to the Fairness Doctrine's downfall, started right here in Syracuse.
The doctrine -- which required broadcasters to fairly present opposing views on controversial topics -- was abolished by the FCC in 1987, but it remained in the Code of Federal Regulations, simply ignored and unenforced. According to an "unofficial announcement" from the Federal Communications Commission, the Fairness Doctrine was one of more than 80 "outdated and obsolete media-related rules" to be officially deleted from the books today. After a 48-hour public notice period, the "official" announcement is expected Wednesday.
As Broadcasting and Cable pointed out today, the fact that the doctrine remained on the rulebooks caused concern among opponents of the doctrine, worried that the set of rules could be brought out of dormancy at any time, creating major impacts for both commercial broadcasters and certain nonc0mmercial (specifically, religious) broadcasters. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's decision to put the doctrine into the proverbial circular file, says B&C, does not require a vote from the commission.
That federal lawsuit we mentioned was brought by the Syracuse Peace Council, against the FCC and a number of other defendants including Meredith Corporation, which owned WTVH at the time. The argument was focused on a series of editorial spots WTVH aired, calling the Nine Mile II nuclear power plant "a sound investment for New York." The Peace Council argued that Meredith Corporation "failed to give viewers conflicting perspectives on the plant," violating the doctrine.
In its defense, Meredith Corporation argued that the doctrine was not fair, as it interfered with broadcasters' ability to serve the public interest. Although they (and eventually, the FCC) also argued the doctrine was unconstitutional, the federal court only agreed with the FCC's decision that the doctrine interferes with public interest, steering clear of any argument over the doctrine's constitutionality.
While today's FCC announcement didn't list in detail the other 82 rules being deleted, it mentioned a few specific examples including the obsolete "broadcast flag" rule. The rule required manufacturers of digital TV recording equipment to recognize a "data flag" embedded in broadcast streams, which would allow broadcasters to dictate whether home viewers would be permitted to record certain programs. The flags could be set so that viewers could record a program, but only on certain types of media, or they could restrict someone from making copies of a recording.
Although the rule was well-intended to battle piracy, opponents argued the flag rule was a violation of basic consumer rights. Some even went to great lengths to demonstrate that the technology could be circumvented, allowing anyone to record anything they wanted, and then do whatever they pleased, regardless of which flags were set.