What is in this article?:
Will official local boards of censors at each local radio and TV station ensure that stations comply with the FCC’s proposed new Localism, Balance and Diversity Doctrine or lose their license?
Would you believe the FCC is seriously considering assigning an official local board of censors to each local radio and TV station that reports local news to approve, spike or rewrite news stories? The proposal is on FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski's desk right now. It’s the biggest unreported news story in the broadcast and electronic news industry.
I was minding my own business the other morning, listening with one ear to local AM talk radio, when something hit my radar screen so hard it darned near broke it. What I heard was a guest phone interview with a man as credible as his words were chilling. The nature of his discussion was the FCC’s proposed new Localism, Balance and Diversity Doctrine. Google those five words, and you will see this topic has received scant attention. The guest, Corydon Dunham, was NBC’s executive legal counsel from 1965 to 1990. He wrote a book in 2012 titled “Government Control of News: A Constitutional Challenge.” I pried my jaw from the floor and started taking notes.
In terms of news and controversial issues, FCC policy was once defined by the Communications Act of 1934. It broadly required broadcasters to satisfy the general “public interest.” The year 1949 was the age of a couple of commercial TV networks generally relying on the telephone company for live program distribution to affiliates across the network. There were no satellites or videotape, and no other programming sources were available other than locally originated live or film content.
Politicians feared television, thinking networks and station owners had too much concentration of power. Clearly, there was a lack of diversity when you could count all TV news and information sources in any given market on one hand. In 1949, the FCC applied emerging rules governing radio news to television, and the Fairness Doctrine was born. It required broadcasters to devote some — but not necessarily equal — airtime to discussing matters of public interest and to air contrasting points of view. It could be done in the context of news, public affairs, editorials and other programming. The idea was to expose viewers to a diversity of viewpoints when all markets had only a few stations providing television news and programming.
With congressional backing, the FCC responded to complaints about radio and TV news, conducted investigations of station news reports and ordered changes in news coverage for balance and other government rules on news content. This wasn’t known to most in the public nor did many know that the Fairness Doctrine wasn’t just being used to change news coverage.
In 1987, the FCC unanimously found the Doctrine was also being used by the Commissioners, who were appointed by the president to prevent criticism of the president. After an exhaustive review of the facts the Commission voted to terminate the Fairness Doctrine. They also found the Fairness Doctrine didn’t stimulate debate as promised. They found that in fact, it suppressed news and made stations leery of covering some news stories that should be reported for fear of an unpredictable FCC ruling that could result in the loss of their broadcast license.
At that vote, Commission Chairman Patrick said, “We seek to extend to the electronic press the same First Amendment guarantees that the print media have enjoyed since our country's inception.” Later, in 1987 and again in 1991, Congress attempted to overrule the FCC and reinstate the doctrine. Both attempts were vetoed by the sitting president. The FCC’s decision had been argued and upheld by a D.C. Circuit Appeals Court in 1989. In his first presidential campaign, Senator Obama said he would not bring back the Fairness Doctrine.
In Congress, all seemed quiet until 2005, when a congressperson introduced the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting Act. It died in committee. In 2007, reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine began picking up support among some in the U.S. Senate. At a Chicago public meeting on Sept. 20, 2007, Ken Bennett, Illinois State Director for then Senator Barack Obama, read a statement from the Senator saying, "I fully endorse a call for new rules promoting greater coverage of local issues, greater responsiveness of broadcasters to the communities they operate in. I also believe that broadcasters' license renewal requests, the periodic review required to ensure that broadcasters are complying with their public interest obligations to local communities for using the public spectrum, should require greater FCC scrutiny and public input should occur more frequently."
The controversy again seemed to quiet down, and in 2009, a White House spokesman reportedly said President Obama continues to oppose reinstatement of the Doctrine. That opposition seemed to grow and on Aug. 11, 2011, the FCC voted to formally repeal even the few provisions that were still on the books of the Fairness Doctrine along with dozens of other “unnecessary regulations.” You might think that would be the end of the story.