Don’t Worry about the Fairness Doctrine. No, Wait, Strike That.

by on February 18, 2009 · 9 comments

Matt Lasar of Ars tells us not to worry about the Fairness Doctrine being revived, only to go on and cite several lawmakers who have said they’d like to revive it. Meanwhile, over at the American Spectator, somebody called “The Prowler” seems to have all sorts of unnamed sources on the Hill telling him the Fairness Doctrine will be revived any day now.

Who knows what to believe. But let’s keep our eye on the real issue here. The danger is not that the Fairness Doctrine gets back on the books in the same form; it’s that versions of it sneak in through the back door via other regulatory initiatives. As Cord Blomquist pointed out here last April, “localism is the new Fairness Doctrine.”  There are a lot of people are running around Washington today insisting that government must intervene in the marketplace to “save media localism” and “strengthen the public interest obligations” of local TV and radio broadcasters.  There’s been an FCC proceeding open on this issue for some time, and everything about it reeks of the Fairness Doctrine in drag.

This effort is being spearheaded by the media reformistas whose short-term goal is to reinvigorate the amorphous “public interest standard” such that the FCC has open-ended powers to regulate everything under the sun going forward. That’s why a key part of the “localism” battle is their effort to breathe new life into “ascertainment rules,” which used to be more formal and required broadcasters to strictly report everything they aired and did in their communities. There’s lots of talk of ensuring more “accountability” from broadcasters regarding how they serve their local communities, and there’s even rumblings of “local community boards” who will sit as mini-free speech Star Chambers and pass judgment on whether local media outlets are doing their job.  Again, it’s all just the Fairness Doctrine by another name.

The Left is essentially engaged in a brilliant diversionary tactic here: Let the those opposed to the Fairness Doctrine work themselves up into a lather about it but then tell them that you have no intention of reimposing it and so there is nothing to fear.  Meanwhile, they are pushing all sorts of regulatory nonsense in through the back door under less ominous-sounding names like “localism requirements” or “public interest” reforms.  All this was scripted out years ago in reports by Free Press and the Center for American Progress. (See this and this).  And check out this extraordinarily disturbing editorial — “A License for Local Reporting” — by several journalism professors that foreshadows what is to come.  It’s all a massive affront to the First Amendment.

Incidentally, Brian Anderson and I summarize all these new threats in our book, A Manifesto for Media Freedom. And, to peer inside the mind of the media reformista movement, you might want to read my essays on “Information Control Fantasies,” “What the Media Reformistas Really Want,” and “Thoughts on the Media Access Movement.”  The Fairness Doctrine may not be revived verbatim, but this war is not yet over.  Be vigilant, defenders of free speech!

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  • Robbins Mitchell

    If the Fairness Doctrine is reinstated (or reimposed),does that mean I won't be able to go on the air and say that President Nigger needs to be butt fucked with a cattle prod?

  • Ifticar

    Obama is a sneaky little bitch. He will tell us that he does not plan to revive the fairness doctrine while planning to kill conservative talk radio with localism.

  • Brett Glass

    “Localism” is not, in and of itself, a bad thing — nor is it equivalent to a “fairness doctrine.” Rather, there are strong arguments that preserving local voices and local content is a way of preventing market failures caused by the vast economic might of national and international media.

    Nor do we need worry that localism would “kill conservative talk radio.” There are plenty of local talk radio hosts who are quite conservative, and plenty of locales where the people are conservative and thus favor these hosts.

    Yes, there are good reasons to be wary of government censorship and/or manipulation of the media. But this seems like a false alarm… typical, in fact, of the scare tactics of some national talk radio hosts. Hmmm.

  • Adam Thierer

    Brett, just so I'm clear… I am a big fan of media localism as a journalistic value. But when regulators say they must micro-manage local media markets and providers in pursuit of that goal, I have problems.

    Importantly, however, there is a very legitimate question about how much “localism” the public really demands these days. I've written about that point here before. See these two essays:

  • Ted

    Localism is SOCIALISM!

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