That which we call the Fairness Doctrine, By any other name would smell as foul

February 16, 2009   •  By Sean Parnell
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Yet another voice has been added to those calling for government regulation of speech over the air through a return of the so-called "Fairness Doctrine," that of Representative Henry Waxman, now Chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. From today’s America Spectator online:

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. 

In an alarming but not unpredictable move, Waxman appears to have more than talk radio in mind:

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." 

"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." 

The justification for regulating political speech on the internet?

"The FCC and state and local governments also have oversight over the Internet lines and the cable and telecom companies that operate them,"….says [one] Democrat committee member "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."

Fabulous. Of course, the same rationale applies to the U.S. Postal Service and telephone lines. So I guess I can expect to see a requirement that The Nation come with inserts provided by National Review to provide "fairness" for those who might otherwise only be exposed to the writings of Katha Pollitt, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and William Greider?

A key element of the scheme for censoring talk radio is to "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."

Exactly whom would be on these "advisory boards" isn’t spelled out (although it’s not difficult to imagine the process, with politicians in charge of appointing who is given this awesome power), but the article does provide one group preparing to bring their full pressure on these boards to punish speech they dislike:

Also involved in "brainstorming" on "Fairness Doctrine" and online monitoring has been…, 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 return of the "Fairness Doctrine" is not, as some would claim, simply a "fake right wing firestorm." It should now be clear what the plan is – to adopt neutral-sounding policies that simply require stations to have local "advisory boards" (almost certainly appointed by local politicians, or rigged in such a way as to ensure that favored constituent groups dominate the board), give those "advisory boards" the power to influence whether a station gets its broadcast license renewed, and then flood the board with ginned-up complaints by activist groups seeking to squelch the voices of those they disagree with.

Regardless of whether this is called the "Fairness Doctrine" or some other euphemism like "content neutrality," "localism," or "broadcast diversity," this assault on the First Amendment still stinks.

Sean Parnell

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