In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission created a rule requiring broadcasters to cover issues that the government deemed important, and to do so in a way that the government found “honest, equitable and balanced.” If a broadcaster did not agree to abide by this rule, the FCC reserved the right to revoke the station’s broadcasting license. This rule was called the Fairness Doctrine. The FCC abandoned it in 1987. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a socially conservative Democrat appointed to the FCC in 2001, would like to bring it back.
Copps has a long history of advocating for government control of media, dating to the beginning of his tenure. But it wasn’t until last week, after Copps spoke to the BBC and an audience at Columbia University, that Congress decided to look into the commissioner’s philosophy against private media companies.
“We are going to be pretty close to denying our citizens the essential news and information that they need to have in order to make intelligent decisions about the future direction of their country,” Copps told the BBC. Media outlets are not “producing the body of news and information that democracy needs to conduct its civic dialogue.”
Copps went on to criticize his Republican colleagues at the FCC, who he claims, “eviscerated just about every public interest responsibility that generations of reformers had fought for and won in radio and TV.” In other words, the FCC folded the Fairness Doctrine in the 80s when it should have been cooking up legal justification for applying it more widely.
Republican Rep. Joe Barton got wind of Copps’ remarks and sent him a letter in which he asked if Copps meant “to suggest that it is the job of the federal government, through the Federal Communications Commission, to determine the content that is available for Americans to consume.” While Copps has not publicly answered Barton’s query, it’s no secret what he’d say: Hell yes.
Want to know how the world will look if Congress reinstates the Fairness Doctrine? Take a long look at what happened in Alaska when a radio talk-show host ran afoul of the political Establishment. After running a contest to get Alaskans to add themselves to a list of write-in candidates for the Senate race, Lisa Murkowski’s ad buyer threatened to get the FCC involved in Dan Fagan’s “electioneering” — and got him taken off the air. Now Sarah Palin has launched a broadside from her Facebook site against Murkowski for attacking free speech and political discourse:
Yesterday, Lisa Murkowski’s hired guns threatened radio host Dan Fagan, and more importantly, the station that airs Fagan’s show, with legal action for allegedly illegal “electioneering.” The station, unlike Murkowski, who is flush with millions of dollars from vested corporate interests, does not have a budget for a legal defense. So it did what any small market station would do when threatened by Beltway lawyers charging $500 to $1000 an hour – they pulled Dan Fagan off the air.
Does all this sound heavy handed? It is. It is an interference with Dan Fagan’s constitutional right to free speech. It is also a shocking indictment against Lisa Murkowski. How low will she go to hold onto power? First, she gets the Division of Elections to change its write-in process – a process that Judge Pfiffner correctly determined had been in place without change for 50 years. She is accepting financial support from federal contractors, an act that is highly questionable and now pending before the FEC. And today, she played her last card. She made it clear that if you disagree with her and encourage others to exercise their civic rights, she’ll take you off the air.
The concept of “electioneering” involves several issues, but typically refers to campaigning at the polls, which is appropriately banned. Under federal law, it can also mean paying for advertising on broadcast media during a federal election cycle, and it requires disclosures if done by groups and corporations. Fagan used satire to mock Murkowski’s write-in efforts and encouraged Alaskans to run as write-in candidates. That is not illegal. That is free speech.
Would Fagan and the radio station eventually get cleared on this? Yes, for the reasons given by Palin — but that’s not really the point. Murkowski didn’t need the FCC and the FEC to act in order to silence Fagan’s dissent; she only needed to use her power to threaten an intervention to succeed.
The real problem is that giving the powerful a tool like the Fairness Doctrine makes it even easier to shut down media criticism.