Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A new version of the Fairness Doctrine

We're going to see some sort of Fairness Doctrine this year. Henry Waxman is on the case. But they're not going to try to implement the Fairness Doctrine of old that mandated equal presentation of issues. Ed Morrissey notes that Obama spokesmen are no longer issuing the categorical denial of the President's interest in imposing the Fairness Doctrine as Obama has been clear in stating during the campaign And as The American Spectator reports, there are already talks going on between the staff of the outgoing chairman of the FCC and Henry Waxman's staff. The focus now will be less on that equal time to other views, but instead on local boards that will determine that stations present local views. That would limit how much time could be devoted to nationally syndicated shows like Rush or Sean, an area where conservatives dominate.

But that is not the limit to Waxman's ambitions. Somehow, he'd also like to regulate content on the Internet.
Senior FCC staff working for acting Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps held meetings last week with policy and legislative advisers to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman to discuss ways the committee can create openings for the FCC to put in place a form of the "Fairness Doctrine" without actually calling it such.

Waxman is also interested, say sources, in looking at how the Internet is being used for content and free speech purposes. "It's all about diversity in media," says a House Energy staffer, familiar with the meetings. "Does one radio station or one station group control four of the five most powerful outlets in one community? Do four stations in one region carry Rush Limbaugh, and nothing else during the same time slot? Does one heavily trafficked Internet site present one side of an issue and not link to sites that present alternative views? These are some of the questions the chairman is thinking about right now, and we are going to have an FCC that will finally have the people in place to answer them."

Copps will remain acting chairman of the FCC until President Obama's nominee, Julius Genachowski, is confirmed, and Copps has been told by the White House not create "problems" for the incoming chairman by committing to issues or policy development before the Obama pick arrives.

But Copps has been a supporter of putting in place policies that would allow the federal government to have greater oversight over the content that TV and radio stations broadcast to the public, and both the FCC and Waxman are looking to licensing and renewal of licensing as a means of enforcing "Fairness Doctrine" type policies without actually using the hot-button term "Fairness Doctrine."

One idea Waxman's committee staff is looking at is a congressionally mandated policy that would require all TV and radio stations to have in place "advisory boards" that would act as watchdogs to ensure "community needs and opinions" are given fair treatment. Reports from those advisory boards would be used for license renewals and summaries would be reviewed at least annually by FCC staff.

Waxman and the FCC staff are also said to be looking at ways to ease the "consumer complaint" process, which could also be used along with the advisory boards.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is also looking at how it can put in place policies that would allow it greater oversight of the Internet. "Internet radio is becoming a big deal, and we're seeing that some web sites are able to control traffic and information, while other sites that may be of interest or use to citizens get limited traffic because of the way the people search and look for information," says on committee staffer. "We're at very early stages on this, but the chairman has made it clear that oversight of the Internet is one of his top priorities."

"This isn't just about Limbaugh or a local radio host most of us haven't heard about," says Democrat committee member. "The FCC and state and local governments also have oversight over the Internet lines and the cable and telecom companies that operate them. We want to get alternative views on radio and TV, but we also want to makes sure those alternative views are read, heard and seen online, which is becoming increasingly video and audio driven. Thanks to the stimulus package, we've established that broadband networks -- the Internet -- are critical, national infrastructure. We think that gives us an opening to look at what runs over that critical infrastructure."

Also involved in "brainstorming" on "Fairness Doctrine and online monitoring has been the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, which has published studies pressing for the Fairness Doctrine, as well as the radical MoveOn.org, which has been speaking to committee staff about policies that would allow them to use their five to six million person database to mobilize complaints against radio, TV or online entities they perceive to be limiting free speech or limiting opinion.
The local advisory boards might sound benign in comparison with some sort of strict mandate about balanced coverage. But the inclusion of liberal groups in working with the staff in writing the bill indicates what would happen. They would be sure to get members on each local board and then inundate local radio and tv stations with complaints. Liberals used to complain when conservatives allowed conservative interest groups to help craft bills, but now the shoe is on the other foot and they're happy to invite their groups to the table to help write their bills.

This focus on the Internet is bizarre. How do they think that any sort of American law could control content on the Internet. The Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down all attempts to control obscenity on the Internet. How are they going to write any sort of regulation that would achieve their goal of achieving balance on the Internet? And with sites like Huffington Post and Daily Kos, where would they get off arguing that there is any stifling of views on the Internet?

There is a case right now before the Court that will determine the power of the FCC to regulate the use of "fleeting obscenities" that could be an indicator of how this Court looks at the power of the FCC to regulate content.

The real danger is in this localism weapon to try to water down content on the radio and the TV. And it could probably be imposed through control of the FCC if the three Democratic appointees could agree on new regulations that would require such advisory councils. And then, this would become a battle fought out in every community as ideologues work to try, in the name of local control, to reduce the time that local radio stations devote to conservative talk radio. Rather than fighting costly appeals of licensing regulations, many radio stations might decide to just do away with the whole fight over programming conservative talk radio and instead just play music.

It's ironic how, in the name of fairness, liberals want to control speech content. Once again, there is nothing liberal about today's liberals.