That is when the FCC’s Media Bureau officially declared the “Zapple Doctrine” dead.
The “Zapple Doctrine” grew out of the Fairness Doctrine, which required licensees to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was, to borrow a phrase from Fox News, “fair and balanced.” In 1970, the FCC determined, in response to a letter from Nicholas Zapple, communications counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee, that the fairness doctrine was “plainly applicable” to time provided by a station to a spokesperson for, or supporter of, a candidate. Although it is commonly understood that the FCC abolished the Zapple Doctrine when it abrogated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, the Commission had not specifically addressed the Zapple Doctrine’s fate. Until now.
In two separate opinions, found here and here, the FCC’s Media Bureau declared that the Zapple Doctrine has “no current legal effect” and that a broadcast licensee has “broad discretion . . . to choose the programming that it believes serves the needs and interests of the members of its audience.” At issue were petitions to deny the license renewal applications of a Milwaukee television station and a Milwaukee radio station on the basis that the stations allegedly refused to provide air time to supporters of Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate for governor, to respond to statements aired in support of Republican candidate Scott Walker. The Media Bureau found that while the petitioner purported to make claims under the Zapple Doctrine and the First Amendment, “its real complaints relate to the Station’s programming choices.” In denying the petition, the Bureau reiterated that “the Commission cannot exercise any power of censorship over broadcast stations with respect to content-based programming decisions.” The Bureau further proclaimed that it will only intervene in programming matters where the licensee abuses its discretion or where federal statutes demand intervention.
The Media Bureau’s action shuts the door on a common line of attack against broadcast license renewals.