When the Obama administration’s Federal Communications Commission underwent its first hearing by the House oversight committee on September 17, the agenda largely centered on FCC chair Julius Genachowski’s upcoming broadband plan and net neutrality—yet before it was over, a Republican representative from Oregon felt compelled to examine the Commission’s new associate general counsel and chief diversity officer, Mark Lloyd.
Noting that he was motivated by a letter “from a number of interest groups,” Rep. Greg Walden said he did “some research [on Lloyd] in the last 24 hours,” and was troubled by his findings. Walden declared that “there’s a lot of talk about czars,” and that he hoped “we don’t have a government speech czar.”
Though he was vague about his sources, Walden’s fears that Lloyd might somehow regulate free speech echoed claims by Fox News’ Glenn Beck and other right-wing talkshow hosts; Fox referred to Lloyd at least 15 times between August 14 and October 1, according to Nexis transcripts—10 of those times on Beck’s program. Beck and his confederates have successfully agitated their audience with the false claim that Lloyd aspires to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, and even more delusional information: Beck (Glenn Beck Show, 8/31/09) has called Lloyd a “Marxist,” while fellow right-wing radio host Michael Savage (Savage Nation, 8/14/09; Media Matters, 8/17/09) has dubbed Lloyd “Communist vermin” and a “neo-Nazi” who is part of a fascist dictatorship bent on taking over the nation.
While it’s tempting to dismiss such fanatical rhetoric, Beck is already credited with the high-profile resignation of Van Jones, a White House adviser on green jobs (see page 10), and lawmakers like Walden seem to be listening. Policy standards of localism and diversity are central to the FCC’s protection of the public’s airwaves, ensuring that broadcasts reflect local communities’ interests and that a fair share of those airwaves go to minority, women and local owners—but they are being drowned out by the corporate media’s fearmongering.
On September 4, less than two weeks prior to the House hearing, Beck shared what he labeled his “fantastic insights” into the 37 people he calls “the president’s czars,” including Lloyd. “Never before have there been so many executive posts that were not confirmed by Congress, and who answered only to the president,” Beck claimed. He deceived his audience: 47 “czars” (a term used by the media, not an official title) were appointed during the Bush administration, filling advisory and coordinating—not executive—roles (Kicking Ass, 9/16/09).
Lloyd, who was appointed by Genachowski, plays a consulting role at the FCC. He has worked with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and has been a visiting scholar at MIT, as well as a reporter and producer at CNN and NBC. Lloyd’s advisory role bars him from making executive decisions, a fact that Beck and others conveniently ignore.
Beck’s fear seems to stem from a report Lloyd co-authored while a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio.” The report, which called into question whether broadcast corporations are serving the public interest, found empirical evidence that stations operated by women, people of color and local proprietors are less likely to air uniformly conservative talk than those stations controlled by group owners, which air in numerous markets or with more than three stations in a given market. The report also determined that stations in less concentrated markets are more likely to air a broad range of political views; stations owned by women and people of color also air more diverse views.
Lloyd’s report suggested three steps towards increasing localism and diversity in radio ownership: reestablishing local and national ownership caps, increasing local responsibility for radio licensing, and enforcing public interest standards at commercial stations with modest fines that would be set aside to fund coverage of local issues.
Beck suggested the report was Lloyd’s “master plan for the FCC to threaten stations’ licenses that they don’t agree with politically,” and cautioned his listeners and viewers against allowing the FCC to encroach on “First Amendment rights, all in the name of localism and diversity.” Of course, if, as the report suggested, stations were prodded to allocate more time to local issues and to present a wider range of views, nationally syndicated hosts would see their reach diminished. A change in policy towards localism and diversity is not, as Beck warns his audience, an attack on the First Amendment—it’s a threat to centralized conservative influence on the radio.
In Beck’s distorted view, Lloyd is also concerned with reenacting the Fairness Doctrine. The much-maligned Doctrine, first adopted by the FCC in 1949, was revoked by Reagan-era commission chair Mark Fowler in 1987. Two congressional attempts to reinstate the policy failed in the face of presidential vetoes. The Obama administration has expressed its opposition to it, calling it “a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible.”
Yet the policy was responsible not only for giving airtime to groups ranging from the National Rifle Association to the ACLU to express their views and spur debate, but it systemized the standard that broadcasters have an obligation to diversify the span of views it presents to its audience (Extra!, 1-2/05). Right-wing broadcasters have thoroughly rebranded a policy that sought to expand free speech as a tool of censorship—so successfully, in fact, that even many on the left have disavowed it.
Prodded by questioning from Rep. Walden, Genachowski assured the House hearing that Lloyd is not working on the Fairness Doctrine; instead, Lloyd’s advisory function is focused on making broadband available across the country. Later in the hearing, Genachowski made clear that he does not champion the Fairness Doctrine, and declared, “I believe deeply in the First Amendment and oppose any effort to censor or impose speech on the basis of political viewpoint or opinion.”
If Lloyd and the FCC won’t be championing the Fairness Doctrine, what will they be doing? Because Obama’s appointments to the commission got off to a slow start, it’s too early to pass judgment on the shape of the administration’s media policy. Media activist and public interest groups heralded Genachowski’s designation to head the commission as a positive sign of policy to come, pointing to his support for net neutrality.
Since its beginnings, the Internet has been based on protocols that treated all traffic alike—a tradition now threatened by broadband providers who seek to speed up or slow down content, or block applications, based on their own interests.
In a September 21 speech, Genachowski said the FCC had established guiding principles that would bar telecommunication carriers from preventing users from accessing content, applications or services, while affirming users’ right to attach non-harmful devices to the network. Although the principles are not legally enforceable, they indicate the current FCC’s willingness to tackle net neutrality. Genachowski also helped draft the Obama media policy agenda, which includes diversifying media ownership.
But with hosts like Beck dominating the media debate and lawmakers promoting their message on Capitol Hill, it remains to be seen if the policies to promote localism and diversity that Lloyd and Genachowski extol will ever be set in motion.
What’s been good for the profits of commercial radio broadcasters hasn’t translated into the public good. Coverage of local issues, which is necessary to foster grassroots democracy, has particularly suffered from bottom-line judgments: A local segment produced by a commercial broadcaster may only garner one advertiser spot, whereas a national story can be re-aired on stations throughout the country, with a new ad sale each time. Commercial broadcasters use revenue—not the public interest—as their guide to programming decisions, and thus, the market has critically failed to serve the needs of democracy.
Beck and other nationally syndicated hosts are worried that the FCC may create incentives to increase localism and diversity. Sean Hannity has said that because of Lloyd, his “broadcasting career, folks, may be in jeopardy”(Hannity, 9/18/09). If these right-wing conservative talkshow hosts truly valued free speech, they would honor a move by the FCC to encourage localism and diversity through enforceable rules and standards.
Aura Bogado is a freelance journalist and writer.