The Central Intelligence Agency runs a small bureau that censors books and articles written by current and former CIA employees. As the only official censorship bureau in America, its operation provides insights on how attempts to muzzle conservative talk radio through a renewed Fairness Doctrine or FCC "localism" may work. It also provides reasons for optimism about the eventual outcome.
CIA censorship seems to make sense at first glance - shouldn't there be a bureau that ensures secrets are not revealed? But CIA censors routinely approve books that contain classified material - especially those critical of the Bush administration - so long as they are not critical of the CIA itself. Memoirs by former CIA Director George Tenet and other top bureaucrats contain startling amounts of classified information. The CIA must use secrecy to hide the identities of agents and operations, of course, but separate laws have always covered that. The CIA has taken its unique ability to void the First Amendment, awarded by a judge in the late 1970's, and used it for its own agenda.
Either information is secret or it isn't. If America's only censorship bureau cannot handle the simple task of determining whether something is classified or unclassified, then we should be wary of creating multiple FCC censorship bureaus to handle far more complex and subjective issues. How can Americans possibly rely on government bureaucrats to decide what is fair and balanced?
The Fairness Doctrine may seem to make sense at a superficial glance - shouldn't all viewpoints be heard, shouldn't the media be fair? But the purpose of a renewed Fairness Doctrine appears to be simply to attack conservative talk radio. The political left's free speech is not constrained by talk radio, because it dominates most other media.
Just as open criticism of the CIA is vital because it can lead to repair of the intelligence gaps that expose Americans to great risk, uncensored talk radio is vital for American freedom because it allows free speech to be heard.
The Founders understood the evil of censorship and knew that censors would never be a panel of wise graybeards issuing Solomonic decisions. CIA censors are ordinary humans who weigh decisions based upon what is in their own interest. They ask themselves, "What decision can I make that will please my boss? What decision will improve my job security, my chances for advancement in the organization?" Censors employed under the Fairness Doctrine would likewise make decisions Chicago-style, decisions meant to serve the people who created their jobs and control their promotions.
Fortunately, the Fairness Doctrine is so obviously unconstitutional in the eyes of most Americans, so blatantly an attempt to block free speech, that it should be easy to defeat. Respect for the First Amendment is broad in American society - American soldiers fight to defend it, schoolchildren understand its importance. Happy warriors like Rush and Sean are already taking on the Fairness Doctrine with full confidence.
Smart politicians on the left know this and it's unlikely that a Rahm Emanuel, for example, would recommend support for heavy-handed attempts to censor conservative radio via a renewed Fairness Doctrine.
More likely is that the left will use the subtle, silent, and creeping tool of government bureaucracy to strangle conservative talk radio. The enforcement of "localism" regulations, as described in a 17 November 2008 American Thinker article by Jim Boulet, would use a system of complaints to the FCC and community advisory boards to attack conservative radio. A few tweaks in FCC regulations can require radio stations to submit time-wasting and expensive reports, hold public meetings, and create panels of local residents, led by community organizers, to evaluate programming. If the bureaucrats and peoples' panels are not pleased with a radio station's compliance, they'll be able to take away the station's license. The goal would be to attack conservative radio in obscurity, without an open showdown.
The behavior of CIA censors may be helpful in predicting that of FCC bureaucrats. Moving with the speed of an old oak tree, CIA censors respond months later to queries, if at all. A book I wrote as a tool in intelligence reform took CIA censors a year to read, and after lots of evasive conversations suggesting they might approve it, in the end came back as a stack of blank pages. It contained no classified information, but was critical of the CIA. Books go from censor to censor, each of whom wields a black magic marker. Free speech entering one end of a censorship process, like hay through a horse, comes out unrecognizable at the other end.