November 17, 2008
Obama Declares War on Conservative Talk Radio
Barack Obama sought to silence his critics during his 2008 campaign. Now, with the ink barely dry on this November's ballots, Obama has begun a war against conservative talk radio.
Obama is on record as saying he does not plan an exhumation of the now-dead "Fairness Doctrine". Instead, Obama's attack on free speech will be far less understood by the general public and accordingly, far more dangerous.
The late community organizer Saul Alinsky taught his followers to strike hard from an unexpected direction, an approach known as Alinsky jujitsu.
Obama himself not only worked as an organizer for an Alinsky offshoot organization, Chicago's Developing Communities Project, but would go on to teach classes in Alinsky's beliefs and methods.
"Alinsky jujitsu" as applied to conservative talk radio means using vague rules already on the books to threaten any station which dares to air conservative programs with the loss of its valuable broadcast license.
Team Obama and the "localism" weapon
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule in question is called "localism." Radio and television stations are required to serve the interests of their local community as a condition of keeping their broadcast licenses.
Obama needs only three votes from the five-member FCC to define localism in such a way that no radio station would dare air any syndicated conservative programming.
Localism is one of the rare issues on which Obama himself has been outspoken.
On September 20, 2007, Obama submitted a pro-localism written statement to an FCC hearing held at the Chicago headquarters of Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.'s Operation Push.
Furthermore, the Obama transition team knows all about the potential of localism as a means of silencing conservative dissent. The head of the Obama transition team is John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.
In 2007, the Center for American Progress issued a report, The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio. This report complained that there was too much conservative talk on the radio because of "the absence of localism in American radio markets" and urged the FCC to "[e]nsure greater local accountability over radio licensing.
Podesta's choice as head of the Federal Communications Commission's transition team is Henry Rivera.
Since 1994, Rivera has been chairman of the Minority Media Telecommunications Council. This organization has specific ideas about localism:
In other words, it would not do for broadcasters to meet with the business leaders whose companies advertise on their station. Broadcasters must reach beyond the business sector and look for leaders in the civic, religious, and non-profit sectors that regularly serve the needs of the community, particularly the needs of minority groups that are typically poorly served by the broadcasting industry as a whole.
Rivera's law firm is also the former home of Kevin Martin, the current FCC chairman. Martin is himself an advocate of more stringent localism requirements.
It was on Martin's watch that on January 24, 2008, the FCC released its proposed localism regulations. According to TVNewsday: "At the NAB radio show two weeks ago, Martin said that he wanted to take action on localism this year and invited broadcasters to negotiate requirements with him."
FCC complaints as politics by other means
Remember that an FCC license is required for any radio or television station to legally operate in the United States. A single complaint from anyone can significantly hinder a station's license renewal process or even cost the station its FCC license entirely.
There have been some attempts to utilize the FCC complaint process for partisan political ends, most memorably in 2004, when Sinclair Broadcasting agreed to air a documentary questioning Senator John Kerry's war record:
Poised to pre-empt programming on its 62 television stations to run a negative documentary about Sen. John Kerry, Sinclair Broadcast Group has come under fire from critics calling it partisan and questioning whether it is failing federal broadcast requirements to reflect local interests.Members of Congress and independent media groups have questioned the company's willingness to respect "localism," a section of federal law that requires media companies to cover local issues and provide an outlet for local voices.
One group, The Leftcoaster, went further:
But what isn't done a lot which requires the broadcaster to rack up expensive legal fees, is to challenge every one of their affiliates' FCC license renewals as they come up this year and next. ... [T]here still is time to organize and file Petitions or objections by November 1, 2004 for Sinclair stations in North Carolina and South Carolina, and for Florida by January 1, 2005.
More recently, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium issued a "fill in the blanks" official FCC complaint form which begins "Anything that you feel is offensive is worth reporting."
Community advisory boards as permanent complaint departments
These random efforts could be far more effective at silencing conservatives if they could only be systematized and institutionalized. That is exactly what the FCC proposed on January 24th. Every radio and television station would be required to create:
[P]ermanent advisory boards comprised of local officials and other community leaders, to periodically advise them of local needs and issues, and seek comment on the matter. ...To ensure that these discussions include representatives of all community elements, these boards would be made up of leaders of various segments of the community, including underserved groups.
The "community advisory board as permanent complaint department" model may well be based upon the 1995 revisions of the Community Reinvestment Act, as described by Howard Husock in City Journal:
[T]the new CRA regulations also instructed bank examiners to take into account how well banks responded to complaints. ... [F]or advocacy groups that were in the complaint business, the Clinton administration regulations offered a formal invitation. ...By intervening-even just threatening to intervene-in the CRA review process, left-wing nonprofit groups have been able to gain control over eye-popping pools of bank capital, which they in turn parcel out to individual low-income mortgage seekers. A radical group called ACORN Housing has a $760 million commitment from the Bank of New York...[emphasis in original].
Understand that even allowing conservatives to be radio talk show guests may provoke a FCC licensing complaint. Just ask "right wing hatchet man" Stanley Kurtz.
For Obama, when it comes to radio talk, silence is golden, at least when it comes to conservatives.
Can localism be stopped?
FCC observers agree that the outpouring of complaints from groups like the National Religious Broadcasters during the original comment period helped delay matters.
However, Kevin Martin's determination to enact a localism regulation has led him to ask the broadcast industry to accept a voluntary standard that the FCC would then enact. If industry failed to agree now, Martin warned, "a future FCC may be less willing to compromise than the current one."
This scare tactic -- agree to our demands today or suffer dire consequences tomorrow -- is having an impact.
What broadcasters need to do: speak up now
Radio and television station owners need to become engaged in the localism issue and then take the time to educate their own Congressman and Senators about the dangers of the FCC's proposals.
If broadcasters get involved, it just may be possible to block implementation of any localism rules during the few months remaining of the Bush Administration.
This delay is critical, since once it is the Obama Administration leading the fight for rules which would shut down conservative talk radio, Republican Congressmen and Senators will find it easier to fight back.
The Senate needs to draw a line in the sand: free speech, not localism
While President Obama will have the authority to name Commissioners as their terms end, these nominations must be confirmed by the Senate.
A few pointed questions on localism to FCC nominees during their confirmation hearings would be useful. A filibuster of any and all pro-localism FCC nominees would be even better.
Any Senator leading such a filibuster would earn the gratitude of millions of fans of talk radio as well as everyone who believes in free speech..