This vote was on an amendment by John Thune, R-S.D., that would prohibit funds in the bill from being used to reinstate what is known as the "Fairness Doctrine." The amendment was offered to the bill that funds most domestic agencies in fiscal 2009.
The "Fairness Doctrine" refers to a now-defunct Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that required broadcasters to present contentious issues of public importance in a balanced manner (sometimes interpreted as giving equal time to both sides of a political battle, though the rule was never that specific). In 1985 the FCC voted to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, arguing that it harmed the public good and violated the First Amendment.
Republicans have been concerned that Democrats would to try to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, either at the FCC or through a law drafted by Congress. Republicans generally believe reinstating the Fairness Doctrine would be done mostly as an attempt to stifle certain kinds of political speech over the airwaves. They are particularly concerned about the impact it might have on the conservative bastion of talk radio. Republicans are concerned that talk radio stations would have to provide equal air time to liberal commentators or be forced to drastically curtail their programming.
"What we are talking about is a first amendment right. In reality, the fairness doctrine resulted in less, not more, broadcasting of issues that are important to the public because airing controversial issues subjected broadcasters to regulatory burdens and potentially severe liabilities. They simply made the rational choice not to air any such content at all," Thune said. "Adoption of my amendment would ensure that our first amendment rights are protected and that consumers have the freedom to choose what they see and hear over our airwaves."
Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said the amendment is irrelevant because no one is suggesting the Fairness Doctrine be reinstated, and also that technology has advanced so far now that the policy would be obsolete even if it were to be implemented again.
"This amendment is totally unnecessary. There is no funding in this bill for the FCC to reinstate the fairness doctrine. This bill does not contain any provisions directing the FCC to reinstate the fairness doctrine. Further, President Obama does not support reinstating the fairness doctrine. The FCC repealed this doctrine in 1987, and has no plans to bring it back," Inouye said. "A lot has changed since the 1950s. Technology has exploded. There are more ways than ever to hear a variety of perspectives and opinions on any number of issues. There are hundreds of channels on cable TV. We have public broadcasting, which was nonexistent at that time. We have more than 14,000 AM and FM radio stations, and hundreds of satellite radio stations. We also have the Internet."
By a vote of 47-50, the amendment was rejected. Every Republican present voted for the amendment. All but seven Democrats voted against the amendment. The end result is that the measure went forward without language that would have prohibited the reinstatement of a defunct rule requiring broadcasters to present contentious issues in a balanced manner.