NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 29, 2009

For five years the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigated whether "broadcasters are appropriately addressing the needs of their local communities."  It concluded that the responsiveness of broadcasters has been less than ideal, and that FCC policies should change to foster more responsiveness to local audiences.  In a new study, Cato Institute scholar John Samples argues, "Broadcast localism, like the Fairness Doctrine, is likely to do significant harm to freedom of speech.  Policymakers who are aware of history will recall the lessons of the Fairness Doctrine and reject localism mandates for broadcasters."

For example:

  • History suggests that the Fairness Doctrine served as a way for presidential administrations to systematically reduce or intimidate dissent of their policies.
  • The doctrine also haphazardly restricted the speech of marginal individuals on the left and the right.
  • The most frequently targeted speakers were conservative Christian ministers with a strong hostility to communism.

The current period seems similar to the Kennedy era, says Samples:

  • A new liberal president is pushing an ambitious agenda and fears the influence of conservative critics; now, as then, the president's political allies hope to manage speech with the help of the FCC.
  • But newly empowered advisory boards could demand that license holders broadcast critics of the president's critics during the time set aside for local programming.
  • Should a broadcaster refuse to follow that advice, the renewal of its license could easily come into question; after all, as members of the advisory board might testify, the license holder had refused to meet the needs of its local audience.
  • The broadcaster might also choose to stay on the good side of its advisory board by deciding not to air "unfair" attacks on the president or his administration.

Some may find this scenario unlikely, says Samples, but the history of the Fairness Doctrine suggests that the word "localism" will be defined in practice as the "raw political advantage" of those in charge of managing speech.  Moreover, both the Fairness Doctrine and the localism proposal share a common weakness: they make broadcasters subservient to politics.  

Source: John Samples, "Broadcast Localism and the Lessons of the Fairness Doctrine," Cato Institute, Policy Analysis, No. 639, May 27, 2009.

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