Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genachowski is in hot water with the right wing talk radio crowd. They’ve discovered that his Associate General Counsel and Chief Diversity Officer, Mark Lloyd, is a co-author of that noted and/or notorious study, The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio. So Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, has written Genachowski an open letter, expressing worry that Lloyd’s presence at the FCC may signal a return to [insert Vampire flick music here] the Fairness Doctrine, which Genachowski has promised not to bring back.
“I am concerned that despite his statements that the Fairness Doctrine is unnecessary, Mr. Lloyd supports a backdoor method of furthering the goals of the Fairness Doctrine by other means,” Grassley wrote.
This missive was quickly followed by the usual alarmist headlines: New FCC Chief Supports the Fairness Doctrine . . . Fairness Doctrine Raises Its Ugly Head Under New FCC ‘Diversity Czar’ . . . Mark Lloyd: FCC Chief Diversity Officer Seeks to Punish Conservative Broadcasters.
You don’t even have to read these articles to get the idea. Hopefully people will eventually calm down about this stuff. Here’s my attempt at rational thinking on the matter.
Not shutting down perspectives
The FCC upheld the Fairness Doctrine for almost 40 years. It required radio and television stations to provide reasonable access to contrasting points of view. The Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 1969. Liberals blame the rightward drift of media on its abandonment by the Commission in 1987. Conservatives says its return would kill free speech—theirs’ in particular (and isn’t that what usually matters most).
As Grassley noted, Structural Imbalance did not call for the return of the Fairness Doctrine, although it observed that over 90 percent of weekday talk radio programming is conservative. Here, in fact, is what the article says:
“Simply reinstating the Fairness Doctrine will do little to address the gap between conservative and progressive talk unless the underlying elements of the public trustee doctrine are enforced, in particular, the requirements of local accountability and the reasonable airing of important matters,” Lloyd and six other authors from Free Press and the Center for American Progress wrote. “The key principle here is not shutting down one perspective or another—it is making sure that communities are informed about a range of local and national public affairs.”
Interestingly, hardly anyone challenges the paper’s assertion that conservatives overwhelmingly dominate talk radio. But Lloyd et al also made a lot of recommendations that conservative critics charge are, shall we say, “Fairnessdoctrinesque.”
“This analysis suggests that any effort to encourage more responsive and balanced radio programming will first require steps to increase localism and diversify radio station ownership to better meet local and community needs,” they wrote, and came up with three ways to achieve this goal:
Provide a license to radio broadcasters for a term no longer than three years. Require radio broadcast licensees to regularly show that they are operating on behalf of the public interest and provide public documentation and viewing of how they are meeting these obligations. Demand that the radio broadcast licensee announce when its license is about to expire and demonstrate how the public can participate in the process to determine whether the license should be extended. In addition, the FCC should be required to maintain a website to conduct on-line discussions and facilitate interaction with the public about licensee conduct.
In fact, none of these measures would constitute the Fairness Doctrine, per se. A recent Congressional Research Service analysis defined the Fairness Doctrine as “a content-based restriction on speech because it requires a government agent, the FCC, to examine the speech of private actors and to make subjective judgments regarding the fairness of the speech.” That’s exactly right. The Doctrine forced the Commission to evaluate the politics of radio and television stations on a case by case basis and decide whether to take what it saw as corrective steps. These recommendations are not nearly that intrusive.
But they do flow from the assumption that the government should be involved in encouraging “balanced radio programming.” And that’s where I part company with the article. I don’t think the state should regulate radio stations directly or indirectly with an eye towards adjusting their politics.
I do think, however, that the FCC has a responsibility to make sure that radio stations provide communities with certain baseline services. People should be able to get first rate coverage about emergency situations from their radio stations. Some licenses fail quite spectacularly in this area.
The public should also be able to get top quality news about local issues, most importantly news about elections and government. And local musicians and non-profit groups should be heard from and about, frequently, on the radio. Serious FCC requirements that these things happen would not interfere with anyone’s politics. Conservative stations could offer these services with a conservative perspective; liberal stations could offer them via a liberal slant.
There will be some, of course, who will call this the Fairness Doctrine as well. They just want the big right wing talk dinosaurs to rule the radio airwaves, and to heck with everything else. They’re always yelling about free speech. But all they really care about is theirs’. I just hope there are enough people in this discussion who know that radio is about more than pleasing the dittoheads.
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