Veteran TV Legal Exec: An Obama 2nd Term Poses Censorship Risk
Pending FCC Proposal Would Chill Free Speech, says Former NBC Counsel
In his 2008 campaign, candidate Barack Obama declared he would not bring back the Federal Communications Commission’s old “Fairness” Doctrine, which authorized government editing of television news.
The doctrine was killed in 1987 because it suppressed news and speech and blocked broadcast criticism of presidents’ policies. The FCC found that the doctrine was anything but fair, and had a chilling effect on free speech and news broadcasts.
But the current FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, appointed by President Obama in 2009, is moving to bring back Fairness Doctrine censorship under a different name — Localism, Balance and Diversity, says Corydon B. Dunham, former 25-year NBC TV executive and legal counsel and author of a new book, Government Control of News: A Constitutional Challenge http://tinyurl.com/9al7srv
“Free speech would be curtailed and press reports intimidated and selectively censored to prevent criticism of the Obama administration on all broadcast and satellite facilities, and on cable rebroadcasts across the country,” Dunham says.
“But this is not a partisan issue,” he adds. “Either party could use the new doctrine to change the content of radio and television news. Many observers believe talk shows could be obliterated.”
Despite a recent special staff report that the proposed rule would harm the broadcast press, speech and the general public interest, Genachowski is poised to have FCC commissioners – appointed by the president – adopt it if Obama is reelected, Dunham says.
“To have a government agency investigate news coverage and edit the news may sound good to some, but the FCC and courts have found that, in practice in the past, such government oversight deters news reports on controversial issues; denies the public information needed for self-government; prevents criticism of the sitting president’s policies, and violates the public interest,” he says. “The administration should do more to stop it now.”
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, which the agency has already begun regulating, Dunham says.
Under the so-called Localism doctrine, five federal communications commissioners in a central government agency in Washington, D.C., would review local news. A majority vote of three commissioners, appointed by the president, would make a final determination of news acceptability, overriding the judgment of thousands of independent, local TV reporters and editors, Dunham says.
Additionally, 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.
“The idea that a central government agency would regulate the content of news stations is completely antithetical to a free, strong and independent press,” Dunham says. “We finally got rid of this terrible idea 25 years ago; how many times do we have to learn the same lesson?”
About Corydon B. Dunham
Corydon B. Dunham is a Harvard Law School graduate. His “Government Control of News” study was started at the Smithsonian Woodrow Wilson International School for Scholars and expanded for the Corydon B. Dunham Fellowship for the First Amendment at Harvard Law School and the Dunham Open Forum for First Amendment Values at Bowdoin College. Dunham was an executive at NBC from 1965 to 1990. He oversaw legal and government matters and broadcast standards. He was on the board of directors of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, American Corporate Counsel Association, and American Arbitration Association among other posts.