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Doctrine Disses Refocus on ‘Localism’

You can take the Fairness Doctrine out of the Code of Federal Regulations, but you can’t take the ! ght out of the doctrine’s strongest critics, who apparently don’t plan to let the issue die with that seemingly final blow.

No less powerful a Democratic tag team than President Barack Obama and Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski have said they do not support the doctrine, and the FCC has now attempted to drive a stake through the heart of the discredited policy by scrubbing it from the federal rulebook.

If they somehow thought that would spell the end of the drumbeat from critics, they would be wrong.

Even before the FCC had officially released the item excising 83 rules, including the doctrine and its personal attack and right of response corollaries, those critics were suggesting it was not enough, that there was a new speech battleground that made getting rid of the doctrine essentially a moot point, and that the doctrine could steal back into the regulatory fold clothed as localism reforms.

The Republican legislators who pushed for the doctrine’s ouster, and for other regulatory reforms, said thanks, but also said it would not dissuade them from pushing for structural reforms.

Fred Upton (R.-Mich.), House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman, and Greg Walden (R.-Ore.), Communications Subcommittee chairman, said they were pleased, and were also pleased that the FCC was planning to submit a plan for reviewing other regs in response to a request by the president. But they were not ready to let the FCC off the deregulatory hook.

“[R]eal regulatory reform requires more. Regulators should propose rules before adopting them, give the public adequate time to review those rules and only adopt rules if the benefits outweigh the costs,” Upton and Walden said. “The FCC has not always followed these best practices, and that’s why we are moving forward on FCC process reform.”

They did not cite the FCC’s network neutrality rulemaking, but that has been one of their examples of rules that they believe did not fit the above criteria for adequate review and cost-benefit analysis.

Seton Motley, president of the organization Less Government and one of the FCC’s harshest critics, made the point explicitly: “[T]he fact is—[Democrats] no longer need the Fairness Doctrine. Technological advancement is rapidly rendering it moot. It would be like their fighting for a reinstatement of horse buggywhip subsidies.”

Motley said net neutrality rules are the next Fairness Doctrine-like check on speech freedoms, since that is where video content is moving. He does not add, but could, that that migration is being pushed by an FCC and administration trying to speed broadband deployment.

The National Religious Broadcasters association has been pushing for the doctrine’s demise for years, concerned that their broadcast sermons on the rewards of virtue would have to be balanced by opposing viewpoints on the value of vice. They should have been pleased, and were—but only to a point.

NRB President Frank Wright remains concerned that the doctrine could return in the guise of localism proposals. “While the letter of the law is now dead, we want to ensure that the spirit of this particular law also remains dead,” Wright said in response to the FCC’s announcement. “There are many voices calling for increased scrutiny of broadcast programming under the guise of ‘localism,’ and we see such proposals as a Fairness Doctrine in different garb.”

Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, who pushed for stronger FCC indecency regs when he was atop the Parents Television Council, is even more emphatic that the spirit of the doctrine is still kicking.

“The FCC deserves a one-handed round of applause for this move,” Bozell said in the wake of the announcement. “Years ago, striking the Censorship Doctrine—and that’s exactly what the Fairness Doctrine was—would have actually meant something," he said. "But since the FCC started playing with policies of ‘localism,’ ‘media diversity’ and a nebulous requirement to ‘serve the public interest’…the spirit of the Censorship Doctrine has remained very much alive. The path to censor radio airwaves is being paved through the back door.”

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