COMMENTARY: Don't let Big Government choose your news

A proposed new plan for government control of television news, and perhaps Internet news, is now pending before the Federal Communications Commission. It would enable the government to suppress opposing points of view, reduce diversity and chill speech.

The new Localism, Balance and Diversity Doctrine has much in common with the FCC’s old Fairness Doctrine – a policy the agency itself found deterred and suppressed news and chilled speech and which it revoked in 1987. An FCC-sponsored Future of Media Study has recommended that the Localism Doctrine proceeding be ended as ill advised but FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has refused; the administrator of the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Cass R. Sunstein, has long recommended that the government regulate news content broadcast by stations to advance the incumbent government’s political and social objectives.

The new doctrine would suppress news, impose unnecessary and heavy burdens on television station news and be enforced by threats of license termination from both the FCC and a local control board at each station. Under the proposed plan, news broadcast by television stations would have to satisfy government criteria for “localism” in production and news coverage – as well as government criteria for balance and viewpoint diversity.

Internet news sites stand to be affected as well. The FCC is planning to transfer the broadcast spectrum used by local television to the Internet and the agency already has begun regulating the Internet.

Five federal communications commissioners in a central government agency in Washington, D.C., would review local news. The majority vote of three commissioners appointed by the president would make a final determination of news acceptability, overriding the news judgments of thousands of independent, local TV reporters and editors. The stations would be threatened with loss of their licenses to broadcast if found to be non-compliant.

In addition, a local control board would be appointed for each television station to monitor its programming, including news, and recommend against license renewal if board members concluded the station is not complying with the FCC policy. This would impose a new blanket of government control over news. Much of the proposed new rule has not been made public including, for example, who would appoint the members of the local boards.

Requiring journalists to comply with a central government agency’s policy on how to report the news and what the news should be means those journalists would no longer be free and independent of government. If the broadcast press is not free and independent, it cannot act as a watchdog for the public, which is its constitutional role.

News gathering is not just taking government handouts; it’s probing sources for what is really going on. It’s important that the TV and radio press continue to be able to do that so the public will be informed. FCC history shows government regulation of news content deters and prevents effective news-gathering.

About Corydon B. Dunham

Corydon B. Dunham is a Harvard Law School graduate. His new book, Government Control of News: A Constitutional Challenge, details the study tracing the history of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine and development of the Localism, Balance and Diversity Doctrine. As an NBC executive for 25 years, Dunham oversaw legal and government matters and Broadcast Standards. He served on the board of directors of the National Television Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Corporate Counsel Association.

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