Localism is the new Fairness Doctrine

by on April 23, 2008 · 28 comments

Just as pink was the new black and The Backstreet Boys were the new New Kids on the Block, the FCC is now turning “Localism” into the new Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine mandated that controversial issues of public importance be presented in a manner deemed by the FCC to be honest, equitable, and balanced. Though Localism isn’t concerned with political speech, both sets of rules interfere with the editorial process, both control and compel speech, and neither passes Constitutional muster.

The FCC has reasons to believe that Localism is a concern, but those reasons lack the weightiness and depth of well-conducted policy research needed for rule making. Commisioner Copps has stated that:

We have witnessed the number of statehouse and city hall reporters declining decade after decade, despite an explosion in state and local lobbying. The number of channels have indeed multiplied, but there is far less local programming and reporting being produced.

Yet only a few short years ago former FCC Chairman Michael Powell made this statement on the issue of localism:

Local newscasts have become the staple of any successful local broadcast tele

vision station, demonstrating that serving the needs and wants of your local community does not just fulfill their public obligations, but also simply make good business sense.

Powell also stated in 2004 that Americans today “have access to more local content than at any time in our nation’s history.” But still, commissioners like Michael Copps don’t approve of how that local news is produced or what it contains.

But events of national and international importance do not occur in accordance with regulators’ preconceived notions of how much coverage ought to be allotted to them. Local news outlets should not be wary of reporting on wars overseas, famine in the developing world, or other non-local issues they deem important for fear of neglecting to comply with bureaucratic dictates.

The Fairness Doctrine had the arguably worse effect of making many broadcasters shy away from political coverage altogether, for fear that–try as they may–their coverage would be considered “unbalanced.” Twenty years after instituting this misguided rule, the FCC finally acknowledged this fact in the wake of a 1985 Supreme Court decision (FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364) which found that the rule was “chilling speech.”

The result was an explosion in talk radio content beginning most famously with conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh, but also creating new space for left-liberal voices like Thom Hartmann and Al Franken.

Where the Fairness Doctrine chilled all speech, Localism will compel speech of which FCC Commissioners like Copps approve. In a world of limited broadcast hours, compelling one sort of speech means sacrificing speech of another, effectively censoring speech.

Should we be content to let the FCC tell us what we have to say when we’d never stand for it telling us what we can’t say? Oh wait, I suppose we do let it tell us what we can’t say.

  • dm

    I think you’re basically wrong about the Fairness Doctrine. All the Fairness Doctrine did was ensure that broadcasters give equal time to opposing points of view. As the broadcasters are borrowing their broadcast medium from the public, this is a pretty reasonable requirement. Far from stifling free speech, it encouraged it. Rush Limbaugh could continue to borrow his megaphone from the commonweal, but then he’d have to hand it over to someone who disagreed with him for a while.

    The effect, at least on my local stations, was of a “letters to the editor” column in broadcast form, though a bit more polished.

    This localism proposal sounds like it would have been a good thing twenty years ago, when mass media were more monopolized. I think the internet changes that.

  • dm

    I think you’re basically wrong about the Fairness Doctrine. All the Fairness Doctrine did was ensure that broadcasters give equal time to opposing points of view. As the broadcasters are borrowing their broadcast medium from the public, this is a pretty reasonable requirement. Far from stifling free speech, it encouraged it. Rush Limbaugh could continue to borrow his megaphone from the commonweal, but then he’d have to hand it over to someone who disagreed with him for a while.

    The effect, at least on my local stations, was of a “letters to the editor” column in broadcast form, though a bit more polished.

    This localism proposal sounds like it would have been a good thing twenty years ago, when mass media were more monopolized. I think the internet changes that.

  • Ryan Radia

    Who’s to select the sides of a debate that ought to deserve a chance to speak? Few arguments have but two positions, and airing only the agenda of Democrats and Republicans but not other political groups is far worse than a broadcaster exercising editorial discretion. We should not expect every media outlet to offer a completely neutral stance on every issue. Newspapers frequently publish opinion essays with a blatant political agenda, and letters to the editor are often selected based on audience appeal rather than for the purpose of promoting fairness of viewpoints.

  • Ryan Radia

    Who’s to select the sides of a debate that ought to deserve a chance to speak? Few arguments have but two positions, and airing only the agenda of Democrats and Republicans but not other political groups is far worse than a broadcaster exercising editorial discretion. We should not expect every media outlet to offer a completely neutral stance on every issue. Newspapers frequently publish opinion essays with a blatant political agenda, and letters to the editor are often selected based on audience appeal rather than for the purpose of promoting fairness of viewpoints.

  • dm

    Bringing up newspapers is a red herring, they aren’t monopolizing the public airwaves. We’re talking about broadcasters, who rent a public resource, and we’re talking about terms of their lease.

    Certainly broadcasters exercise editorial discretion, but they also have a responsibility (unrecognized and unfulfilled today) to give “equal time” for differing views on the public property that they lease. They’re human. Their audience is human. It’s not a perfect system, and occasionally you might even end up in court or in front of the FCC, but it was much better than the absence of accountability on the airwaves today.

    You can’t even get equity by means of paid advertisement today. “We don’t air commercials on (that side of) a political controversy”.

    Mentioning that the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine made Rush Limbaugh possible is possibly true, but not in the sense Cord Blomquist means. Paul Harvey aired his political commentaries to a huge audience before, during, and after the existence of the Fairness Doctrine. What the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine made possible was Limbaugh’s (or Franken’s) ability to lie to their audience with impunity (should they want to). At least in the Fairness Doctrine days, Harvey knew that if he stretched the truth too far, someone would appear in his time-slot offering a correction.

  • dm

    Bringing up newspapers is a red herring, they aren’t monopolizing the public airwaves. We’re talking about broadcasters, who rent a public resource, and we’re talking about terms of their lease.

    Certainly broadcasters exercise editorial discretion, but they also have a responsibility (unrecognized and unfulfilled today) to give “equal time” for differing views on the public property that they lease. They’re human. Their audience is human. It’s not a perfect system, and occasionally you might even end up in court or in front of the FCC, but it was much better than the absence of accountability on the airwaves today.

    You can’t even get equity by means of paid advertisement today. “We don’t air commercials on (that side of) a political controversy”.

    Mentioning that the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine made Rush Limbaugh possible is possibly true, but not in the sense Cord Blomquist means. Paul Harvey aired his political commentaries to a huge audience before, during, and after the existence of the Fairness Doctrine. What the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine made possible was Limbaugh’s (or Franken’s) ability to lie to their audience with impunity (should they want to). At least in the Fairness Doctrine days, Harvey knew that if he stretched the truth too far, someone would appear in his time-slot offering a correction.

  • http://cordblomquist.com Cord Blomquist

    Monopolizing is hardly a fair word to use. Yes, I suppose broadcasters monopolize broadcasting, but then newspapers monopolize newspapering, so what? There are many broadcasters on the air and if we wonder why there aren’t more we needn’t look any futher than the FCC. Restrictions on low power stations and holding on to the notions that licenses shouldn’t be bought and sold is what is holding us back from real progress. We don’t need more layers of rules, no matter how well intentioned.

    Also, why should every channel provide equal time to both sides? Seems to me it makes more sense to have a the right-wing channel with Rush at the head and to have a left-wing channel with Thom Hartmann as the prime-time show. Why not let another station “serve the public good” by broadcasting sports talk or even oldies music? You know, something people actually want to listen to.

    Rather than trying to engineer fairness out of a myriad of rules why don’t we let audiences decide what should be on the radio? Broadcasters should be able to broadcast what they like so long as there is ample competition and people can still reach up and turn the dial.

    Ultimately, however, I think that radio and TV need to disappear from the airwaves. Radio is a massive waste of valuable spectrum that could be used to blanket the country in wireless internet connectivity. Moving TV to digital was a start, but ultimately we could fit a lot more data into the airwaves if we auctioned the spectrum to the highest bidders, which would be internet service providers.

  • http://cordblomquist.com Cord Blomquist

    Monopolizing is hardly a fair word to use. Yes, I suppose broadcasters monopolize broadcasting, but then newspapers monopolize newspapering, so what? There are many broadcasters on the air and if we wonder why there aren’t more we needn’t look any futher than the FCC. Restrictions on low power stations and holding on to the notions that licenses shouldn’t be bought and sold is what is holding us back from real progress. We don’t need more layers of rules, no matter how well intentioned.

    Also, why should every channel provide equal time to both sides? Seems to me it makes more sense to have a the right-wing channel with Rush at the head and to have a left-wing channel with Thom Hartmann as the prime-time show. Why not let another station “serve the public good” by broadcasting sports talk or even oldies music? You know, something people actually want to listen to.

    Rather than trying to engineer fairness out of a myriad of rules why don’t we let audiences decide what should be on the radio? Broadcasters should be able to broadcast what they like so long as there is ample competition and people can still reach up and turn the dial.

    Ultimately, however, I think that radio and TV need to disappear from the airwaves. Radio is a massive waste of valuable spectrum that could be used to blanket the country in wireless internet connectivity. Moving TV to digital was a start, but ultimately we could fit a lot more data into the airwaves if we auctioned the spectrum to the highest bidders, which would be internet service providers.

  • dm

    Monopolizing is a perfectly reasonable word to use, with spectrum allocated the way it is now.

    I’d be happy with lifting restrictions on low-power stations, but until then, those who lease a monopoly on the spectrum can be expected to abide by rules that promote the public good as they use that spectrum.

  • dm

    Monopolizing is a perfectly reasonable word to use, with spectrum allocated the way it is now.

    I’d be happy with lifting restrictions on low-power stations, but until then, those who lease a monopoly on the spectrum can be expected to abide by rules that promote the public good as they use that spectrum.

  • Joe eeser

    The notion that anyone, especially “the pubic”, “owns” the electro-magnetic spectrum is hogwash. It is nothing but an excuse to control content. The Democrats don't like the content of talk radio and therefore wish to squelch this content. With the Fairness Doctrine in place, coverage of “controverisial subjects” simply recieved no coverage rather than equal coverage. The Democrats are willing to make that trade-off to destroy talk radio.

  • Mike Bashore

    You are an Idiot. Can't you read how this communist rule affected the air waves.

  • Mike Bashore

    You are an Idiot. Can't you read how this communist rule affected the air waves.

  • Mike Bashore

    You are an Idiot. Can't you read how this communist rule affected the air waves.

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