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A warning by the Federal Election Commission chairman that “some on the left” want to restrict conservative media outlets on the Internet underscores a long history of various efforts that set out to limit the impact of money on politics, level the playing field for minorities and provide equal time to conflicting political arguments but end up squelching free speech.
FEC Chairman Lee E. Goodman said in an interview with the Washington Examiner that government officials are reacting to the growing power of conservative media, particularly independent news outlets with an Internet presence, by devising ways to curb the media’s exemption from federal election laws that restrict corporations.
“I think that there are impulses in the government every day to second guess and look into the editorial decisions of conservative publishers,” warned Goodman.
While Goodman did not specify “the impulses,” there is a history of efforts that end up disproportionately curbing conservative voices through campaign-finance laws, broadcasting regulations and other means.
In the Examiner interview, Goodman, noting the success of The Drudge Report and others, said the right “has begun to break the left’s media monopoly, particularly through new media outlets like the Internet.”
In response, he said, some on the left are “starting to rethink the breadth of the media exemption and Internet communications.”
Goodman said that protecting conservative media “matters to me because I see the future going to the democratization of media largely through the Internet.”
“They can compete with the big boys now, and I have seen storm clouds that the second you start to regulate them,” he said, “there is at least the possibility or indeed proclivity for selective enforcement, so we need to keep the media free and the internet free.”
Already, campaign-finance laws such as the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 have curbed political speech by banning the broadcast, cable or satellite transmission of “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general election.
In January 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that section of the law limiting the activity of corporations, saying: “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”
The case was brought by the grass-roots advocacy group Citizens United, which produced a movie called “Hillary” about then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was then seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination.
The FEC had ruled that video-on-demand distribution of Hillary would violate McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on speech financed by a corporation before an election.
In February, the reporting of a Federal Communications Commission proposal to dispatch “researchers” into radio, television and even newspaper newsrooms stoked controversy.
Ajit Pai, a commissioner with the FCC, warned in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that under the rationale of increasing minority representation in newsrooms, the FCC, which wields the power of issuing broadcasting licenses, would send the researchers to newsrooms across America to seek their “voluntary” compliance about how news stories are conceived and written.
He suggested the newsroom monitors might also “wade into office politics” looking for angry reporters whose story ideas were rejected as evidence of a squelching of minority views.
In response to a flood of angry opposition, the FCC insisted it had no intention of moving ahead with the plan.
Spokeswoman Shannon Gilson issued a statement explaining the FCC had proposed a study that was part of its effort to examine access to the media marketplace. A review of the study, including public comments, she said, raised concerns that prompted the removal of controversial questions. She insisted any suggestion “that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America’s newsrooms is false.”
‘Fairness’ squelched talk radio
The FCC proposal, however, was a resurrection of the fundamental principle of the old Fairness Doctrine. Disbanded in 1987, the policy required the holders of broadcast licenses to cover issues of public importance in a manner deemed by the commission to be honest, equitable and balanced.
But the policy had the effective of virtually barring opinion radio, because station managers were put in the untenable and often unprofitable position of ensuring that their programming gave equal time to views from the left and the right.
The conservative talk-radio phenomenon was born from the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, and many on the political left, including Democratic Party lawmakers such as Sen. Dick Durbin, have tried to restore the policy.
Amid the Obama-era failure to re-impose the Fairness Doctrine, conservatives have been repeatedly warned that the progressive left is attempting to implement other, less transparent and more complicated means to accomplish the same end of diminishing the reach and effectiveness of conservative talk radio.
One avenue is “localism,” the FCC rule that requires radio and TV stations to serve the local community’s interests, one of which, according to the Obama administration, is “diversity of programming.”
For example, former FCC associate general counsel and chief diversity officer Mark Lloyd, who served with the agency from 2009 to 2012, proposed new station ownership rules that would “create greater local diversity of programming, news, and commentary.”
As WND reported, Lloyd co-authored a 2007 study for the highly influential left-wing, think-tank Center for American Progress, or CAP, titled “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio.” The study recommended radio station “ownership diversity,” citing data claiming stations “owned by women, minorities, or local owners are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows.”
In a 2007 article for CAP titled “Forget the Fairness Doctrine,” he called “for more localism by putting teeth into the licensing rule.”
Lloyd wrote that all radio stations should be required to “provide information on how the station serves the public interest in a variety of areas.”
The CAP report specifically called on the FCC to mandate all radio broadcast licensees “to regularly show that they are operating on behalf of the public interest and provide public documentation and viewing of how they are meeting these obligations.”