“Localism” is the new “fairness doctrine”

The bill containing Senator Jim DeMint’s amendment banning the return of the so-called "fairness doctrine" (more appropriately called the Censorship Doctrine) is currently on hold, as House leadership considers what to do with another amendment to the bill concerning gun rights.

Even if the bill passes, however, the threat to free and unfettered political speech on the radio remains. "Localism" has become the new buzzword for those seeking to put broadcasters under the thumb of censors, as demonstrated by reports that Congressman Henry Waxman is seeking the return of the "fairness doctrine" through "localism."

Brian Anderson of the Manhattan Institute explains more in a recent op-ed on the "fairness doctrine" and "localism":

Although the Obama administration has said it is not inclined to support a new Fairness Doctrine… it has suggested it might support another reform, called "localism," which should also worry defenders of media freedom.

Localism would impose greater "local accountability" on broadcasters — that is, it would force stations to carry more local programming. Localism, as sketched out in a recent FCC report, also could require stations to set up permanent community advisory boards (including "underserved community segments") that would have to be regularly consulted on "community needs and issues."

This measure — a kind of community organizing applied to the airwaves — could complicate life for national syndicators like Salem Radio, which make conservative and Christian shows available from coast to coast… As a candidate, Obama supported both localism and the idea of relicensing stations every two years, rather than eight, as is currently the case — which would make the new monitors a constant worry for stations.

Localism is wildly impractical. How would board membership be decided? Would liberals sit on the board of a conservative station broadcasting in an urban area? Or would, say, an Islamic community leader sit on the board of a Christian station that broadcast in an area with a large Muslim population? And what kind of power would these FCC-mandated boards wield? Would stations be able to reject their advice without jeopardizing their licenses? What seems all too likely is that groups of professional activists would colonize these community panels and demand that their preferred issues be covered.

The idea is as philosophically misguided as the Fairness Doctrine. After all, stations already serve their communities — their listeners and advertisers. If they don’t serve them, they go out of business. Local-content shows flourish if, and only if, they can win an audience.

By what right does the government tell listeners what they can or can’t listen to when it comes to political speech? The upshot of enforced localism likely would be similar to that of a new Fairness Doctrine: a diminished presence of conservative voices as broadcasters shift formats or get out of the business entirely.

All this is blatantly unconstitutional. The 1st Amendment says Congress must make no law that abridges freedom of speech or the press. Imagine the outcry if Washington bureaucrats began regulating or "advising," say, The [LA] Times for fairness or to increase local content…

Even if the DeMint amendment makes it into law, it’s clear that the effort by some to drive the political speech of their opponents off the air will continue, simply under another guise.


  1. […] crops up every so often is a trojan horse for fairness doctrines, as it was when President Obama brought it up about four years ago, but Clear Channel clearly doesn’t recognize a responsibility to inform […]

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.