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.