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February 20 2014

FCC To News Media: We're Just Here To Study How You Do It

Charlotte Hays

Looks like the Obama administration’s assault on the First Amendment is continuing.

The latest attack is on freedom of the press. While it could have enormous impact, this assault is more subtle than the administration's attack on our religious liberty that is embodied in the Department of Health and Human Services so-called contraception mandate.

You see, the Federal Communications Commission just wants to come into selected newsrooms around the country, have a look see around—you know talk to editors about how they decide what to cover and how big to play a story. What could be more harmless?

The name of the FCC’s new venture is the "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," or CIN. At best, it's a waste of taxpayer money to study a subject that is not the business of government. More likely, however, it is the beginning of an unprecedented attempt by government to curtail freedom of the press. In the wake of the IRS scandal, in which the IRS hampered the work of organizations with which this administration disagrees, this is worrisome.

Participation in the study is theoretically voluntary, though, since the FCC has vast powers, editors might think twice before running afoul of it by refusing to participate. A newsroom in South Carolina is scheduled to be the guinea pig this spring.

Dissident FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who is well aware of the dangers of the federal government’s studying “perceived station bias,” writes:

How does the FCC plan to dig up all that information? First, the agency selected eight categories of "critical information" such as the "environment" and "economic opportunities," that it believes local newscasters should cover. It plans to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their "news philosophy" and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information.

The FCC also wants to wade into office politics. One question for reporters is: "Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?" Follow-up questions ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions.

There is no other way to say this: What the FCC is on the verge of doing is sinister. The now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, which sought to mandate that differing views were accorded the same amount of time, is child’s play compared to this scheme.

The FCC’s rationale for this is spurious. Pai writes:

The FCC says the study is merely an objective fact-finding mission. The results will inform a report that the FCC must submit to Congress every three years on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry.

This claim is peculiar. How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the CIN study include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?

It is telling that opposition to this FCC move comes mostly from congressional Republicans and conservative groups and scholars.

There was a day when a liberal but robust press would have been up in arms about such an intrusion by government. There is no doubt that this could stifle the press. But where is the press outcry?

 

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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