November 5, 2015

ON THE UPSIDE, THIS OUTDATED DOCTRINE WEAKENS TRADITIONAL MEDIA RELATIVE TO NEW MEDIA: The Donald On ‘SNL’: Equal Time Isn’t Needed; The FCC rule was meant to foster debate, but today is more likely to chill it.

The Radio Act of 1927 created the equal-time doctrine when airtime was a scarce commodity, so important for electoral success that federal regulation was deemed the only way to protect the public interest.

Lawmakers’ intention was to foster debate. But in practice the doctrine often has the opposite effect. In 1952, for example, the criteria to qualify under the equal-time doctrine were so broad that they covered presidential candidates from 16 minor political parties. That meant stations could not give time to Democrats or Republicans without potentially providing the same amount of time to candidates from the Socialist Party or the Prohibition Party. As a result, broadcasters shied away from political candidates.

Congress noticed, and by 1959 it had adopted exceptions to the doctrine. Among them, “bona fide news” broadcasts or documentaries wouldn’t trigger equal-time obligations.

At first the FCC maintained that political debates would still trigger equal-time requirements. To ensure that the Nixon-Kennedy debates could be broadcast without worry that stations would be forced to trot out every also-ran, Congress temporarily suspended the doctrine in 1960. The FCC would later “revise” its equal-time interpretation and conclude that political debates were “bona fide news events.”

Over the years the FCC has continued to broaden exceptions to allow political candidates more leeway. Candidate appearances on “The Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson or “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert have also been categorized as bona fide news events.

Perhaps the GOP should start demanding stricter enforcement. . . .

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