Monday, February 16, 2009

Possible Censorship or Needed Balance?

Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have long been favorite whipping boys of the political left. They are seen as long on talk and short on fact, and far too influential to impressionable citizens who they claim are being swayed by more rhetoric than truth. With the recent partisan struggle over the so-called Stimulus Bill, and the perceived role these radio personalities had in it, there is now increased talk about what can be done to rein them in. Reintroducing the Fairness Doctrine is one popular suggestion, although it was obolished over 20 years ago by the FCC. While the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC has the right to enforce it, it is not obligated to do so. With the modern poliferation of mutiple channels, both cable and public, not to mention the internet and radio, such a 'corrective' to the danger of on-sided reporting no longer seemed necessary. Although Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is in favor of it, it seems unlikely, at this juncture, that the president will pursue it.

In place of the Fairness Doctrine, Localism is the proposed alternate way to bring balance to the airwaves now seen as too one-sided, at least those that air conservative talk shows. As defined by the FCC, broadcast localism is the Commission's way to ensure that broadcaster's serve the needs of the communities to which they are licensed. As part of the ruling, each station is required to keep on file an "issues/program list" that interested members of the community can examine to see if the currently aired programs provide the "most significant treatment of the community issues."

Predictably there has been an outcry of concern as to the effect this FCC ruling could have on the overall freedom of speech and especially conservative talk radio. One site noted that "Where the Fairness Doctrine chilled all speech, Localism will compel speech of which FCC Commissioners like Copps approve. In a world of limited broadcast hours, compelling one sort of speech means sacrificing speech of another, effectively censoring speech."

Apparently President Obama favors enforcement of Localism more than the Fairness Doctrine, and as another site has noted, he "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." The perceived danger is that stations faced with challenges to currently aired shows might decide that omitting them altogether would be easier than going through the maddening struggle of trying to balace everthing to the satisfaction of those who complain.

So what does all this have to do with faith and church (since that is where I usually limit my commentary)? The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is a cherished liberty in our country, especially when it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel. Encroachment on this right usually does not come in a full frontal attack, but in a more subtle erosion of it by bits and pieces. In an increasingly politically correct society, where speaking out against such 'hot button issues' as homosexuality, or insisting on doctrinal absolutes constitutes right-wing rigidity of the highest order, not to mention the great sin of intollerence, the need to silence outspoken critics has risen anew among those of the liberal left. And silencing such voices is far easier if one simply hems them in by arcane little known rules and laws.

We would do well to stay informed on this issue in the months to come.

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