Alan K. Henderson's Weblog


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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The War On Speech

Wes Vernon has a short history on the topic, spanning from the Supreme Court's 1943 stamp of approval on government regulation of broadcast media's "composition of traffic," to the Fairness Doctrine, to McCain-Feingold, to the currently-debated Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting bill.

There's also this tale of Seattle radio talk show hosts Kirby Wilbur and John Carlson, whose voiced opposition to a proposed gas tax hike ran afoul of a statewide campaign finance law:

As the Wilber/Carlson advocacy began to catch on with the public, a consortium of tax-hungry local governments throughout the state went to court and persuaded a judge to rule that the talk-show hosts' commentaries should be counted as "in-kind" contributions to the No New Gas Tax (NNGT) campaign. The court decided that the hosts and their station KVI-AM offered free political advertising to the gas-tax opponents.

Part of the rationale for the ruling—now on appeal to the state Supreme court—was that the hosts' employer—Fisher Communications— "sent" NNGT a contribution merely by allowing Wilbur and Carlson to comment in favor of the repeal initiative (which subsequently failed by a narrow margin, thanks in no small part to the overwhelming power of the moneyed campaign by the pro-taxers). It did not matter that the KVI talkers had proponents of the tax hike appear on their program as guests, or that Fisher's media properties included commentaries in favor of sticking Washington State consumers for more money at the pump.

Back to the Fairness and Accountability in Broadcasting bill. Its chief sponsor, New York congressindividual Louise Slaughter, details the bill on her official government website:

Specifically, it will reduce the license period for broadcast stations back to four years. Eight years of operating without any oversight, we have discovered, is a license to steal.

Second, each station shall be required to hold 2 public hearings a year to ascertain the needs and interests of the communities they serve.

Transcripts of these hearing shall be placed in a public file, on the Internet, and be forwarded to the FCC as part of the license renewal process.

Third, stations will be required to report to the FCC on a biannual basis how they have covered diverse opinions about issues of public importance and how their coverage reflects the interests and viewpoints of their local community.

And last, the FCC shall take into account any failure to hold hearings or ascertain the needs and interests of the community into account when license renewal rolls around.

Slaughter has essentially two concerns: that large corporations' buyouts of local stations has led to an increasing neglect of local news coverage, and that because of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, "critical issues of public importance were not being covered - or were appearing in such a lop-sided fashion that they were unrecognizable as the truth."

The Heritage Foundation addresses the latter argument:

The second fallacy upon which the doctrine rests concerns the idea of "fairness" itself. As defined by proponents of the doctrine, "fairness" apparently means that each broadcaster must offer air time to anyone with a controversial view. Since it is impossible for every station to be monitored constantly, FCC regulators would arbitrarily determine what "fair access" is, and who is entitled to it, through selective enforcement. This, of course, puts immense power into the hands of federal regulators.

It gets better:

And in fact, the fairness doctrine was used by both the Kennedy and Nixon Administrations to limit political opposition. Telecommunications scholar Thomas W. Hazlett notes that under the Nixon Administration, "License harassment of stations considered unfriendly to the Administration became a regular item on the agenda at White House policy meetings." (Thomas W. Hazlett, "The Fairness Doctrine and the First Amendment," The Public Interest, Summer 1989, p. 105.) As one former Kennedy Administration official, Bill Ruder, has said, "We had a massive strategy to use the fairness doctrine to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters, and hope the challenge would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue." (Tony Snow, "Return of the Fairness Demon," The Washington Times, September 5, 1993, p. B3.)

For whomever is running against Slaughter in this election, you could run ads berating her for pushing legislation akin to that which Nixon used to silence his critics. Maybe you could label her a Nixon Democrat. Citizens of Arizona and Wisconsin will have to wait until 2010 to unseat McCain and Feingold, respectively.

Slaughter should be careful what she wishes for. I can think of one local issue that she would probably not like to see receive increased news coverage - gerrymandering:

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