The FCC has on the table a policy that would resurrect broad censorship rules – very similar to those that were revoked in 1987 because of their chilling effect on free speech and the television press.
The proposed new Localism, Balance and Diversity Doctrine could eventually also affect news on the Internet. The FCC has already begun transferring the broadcast spectrum used by local television to the Internet to make it the nation’s primary communications platform, and the agency has already started to regulate the Internet.
In 1949, when the rules governing radio news were applied to TV, it was because government officials recognized they were dealing with a powerful new medium. There were only a few broadcast stations, so they feared the stations and network owners had too much power. The government instituted the Fairness Doctrine as a way to ensure stations aired opposing viewpoints on issues.
But what was touted as an attempt to encourage robust discourse became a tool for censoring the news. If a complaint was made about a view that had been broadcast, the FCC investigated. If it concluded that a view should be changed, it ordered that. If it concluded other views should be presented, or even related issues, it ordered that. Failure to comply could result in no license renewal, renewal for a short time, or a “negative record” applied at renewal.
In 1987, the FCC unanimously revoked the Fairness Doctrine, with court approval, after finding it had deterred news reporting on controversial issues, and had often been used to suppress viewpoints and aid officials in pursuing their own political objectives.
For two decades, Congress tried to revive the Fairness Doctrine, and in 2008, the FCC released a new proposed body of rules for TV news – the Localism, Balance and Diversity Doctrine.
It has many of the same characteristics of the old Fairness Doctrine. News broadcast by television stations would have to meet government criteria for local news production and coverage as well as a regulatory balance and diversity of viewpoints. A three-vote majority of five FCC commissioners at a central government agency would make local news judgments and override those of thousands of independent, local TV reporters and editors.
It would also be enforced by having a local board at each station monitor programming, including news, and recommend against license renewal if the station violated FCC policy.
In 2011, the FCC-sponsored Future of Media Study recommended the localism doctrine proceeding be ended, but that hasn’t happened. The present chief of the White House regulatory office has long recommended that the government regulate news to advance its political and social objectives.
And TV is not the only medium potentially affected.
At the end of 2010, the FCC decided to take over regulation of the Internet in this country. It will regulate its traffic and gain some power to review content. The president, Congress and the FCC have also agreed to transfer the entire broadcast spectrum (currently used by TV stations) to the Internet over the next 10 years. If the localism doctrine is adopted, it could apply to the Internet and its participants as users of the FCC-controlled spectrum.
Requiring journalists to comply with a central government agency’s policy on how to report the news means those journalists will no longer be free and independent. The threat of loss of license will deter station news coverage, particularly of controversy, and the public will lose news and information.
If the broadcast press is not free and independent of government, it cannot act as a watchdog for the public, which is its constitutional role.
About Corydon B. Dunham
Corydon B. Dunham is a Harvard Law School graduate and was an executive at NBC from 1965 to 1990, overseeing legal and government matters and Broadcast Standards. He was on the board of directors of the National Television Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Corporate Counsel Association, and American Arbitration Association among others.