The FCC Tries to Stick Its Big Nose Into the Newsroom

The FCC Tries to Stick Its Big Nose Into the Newsroom
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Judging from their February programming decisions, the producers, suits, and talking heads at MSNBC consider New Jersey Gov. Christie Christie’s ill-fated foray into traffic management a story so big it makes Watergate look like a picnic.

MSNBC’s parent network has come under criticism for being more interested in prompting American skier Bode Miller to cry on camera about his brother’s death last year than covering the real-time slayings of pro-democracy demonstrators in Ukraine. Could the $775 million NBC paid for exclusive U.S. rights to the Winter Olympics have something to do with it?

If you watched CNN in recent days, you might think it was open season on black kids in Florida. (It wasn’t; the middle-aged white man who shot Jordan Davis in the “loud music” killing was convicted of serious felony charges and faces a long prison term.) Meanwhile, at Fox New they can’t get enough of the latest Obamacare fail—and the network’s talking heads seem to think that Hillary Clinton changed her middle name from Rodham to “Benghazi.”

So who can bring order to all this chaos? Well, if you don’t think Obama administration federal appointees have raised their big grasping paws to volunteer, you haven’t been paying attention.

Yes, until it reversed course on Friday amid public outcry, the Federal Communications Commission wanted to know how and why broadcasters—especially local stations—make editorial decisions, and was apparently planning to dispatch “investigators” into the field to find out. Sample questions for owners of broadcast outlets: “What is the philosophy of the news station?” “How much does community input influence news coverage decisions?”

Where was Edward Snowden when we needed him? Oh, right, ensconced in the heart of the old Soviet Union where programs titled “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs”—that’s actually what the FCC calls this fishing expedition—wouldn’t seem out of place. But I digress.

According to the research design presented to the FCC by a government contractor named Social Solutions International Inc., it wasn’t just television stations, either: Internet news organizations and newspapers were to be included in this information sweep, as if that were actually in the FCC’s purview.

In foreign policy, that would be called “mission creep.” Mission creepy is more like it. Think of these sample questions Social Solutions proposed asking professional journalists.

--Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers (viewers, listeners, readers) that was rejected by management?

--If so, can you give an example?

--What was the reason given for the decision?

In other words, the government was looking for ideologically motivated—or, perhaps, merely disgruntled—employees to rat out their bosses on partisan grounds. This study was announced last spring, but it took a while for the details to leach out. Last December, 16 Republican members of Congress wrote a letter to new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler urging him to intercede in the FCC’s effort to become “the news police.”

“We were shocked to see that the FCC is putting itself back in the business of attempting to control the political speech of journalists,” wrote the Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “It is wrong, it is unconstitutional, and we urge you to put a stop to [it].”

They received no formal response until after FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed to the bipartisan body by President Obama, wrote a Feb. 10 op-ed for the Wall Street Journal raising the same concerns.

On Valentine’s Day, Chairman Wheeler sent a respectful, if noncommittal response, saying that the terms of the study were not final, and would be revisited. He reiterated the FCC’s previous stated reason for undertaking the study: a statutory requirement that the agency report back to Congress every three years on potential barriers keeping small business people out of the communications industry.

Commissioner Pai, for one, found that rationale “peculiar.” He wondered how news judgments could possibly impede entrepreneurship in the media. He also wondered why the study includes newspapers and online publications, which the FCC has no authority to regulate.

In a statement Friday, commission spokesperson Shannon Gilson said that a pilot version of the study would be suspended and redesigned, noting that Wheeler “agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required.”

Still, the press coverage so far has tended to characterize the controversy as a protest by conservatives. That’s distressing on a couple of levels. First, it mainly has been conservatives who’ve objected to this crude intrusion into the First Amendment. (Where is the ACLU when you need it? Speaking of which, in an age when all one needs is a laptop, a domain name, and a smartphone to launch a political website, do we still need an FCC?)

Secondly, let’s imagine how the establishment media might respond if George W. Bush-appointed FCC commissioners had proposed digging into the editorial practices of liberal outlets.

Fox News executives feared they were the ultimate target of this exercise, and who can blame them for that suspicion? From the beginning of the Obama presidency, White House communications officials and Obama political advisers have leveled attacks on Fox, even going so far as to proclaim that it is not a “a legitimate” news organization.

They are reading from an old hymnal. In the early days of television — in 1949, to be precise — Congress and the FCC cooked up “the Fairness Doctrine.” Ostensibly, its purpose was to ensure that (publicly owned) airwaves didn’t carry monolithic public opinions.

That very name was always a sort of Rorschach test: Liberals found the “Fairness Doctrine” to be the very definition of good government: What decent or thoughtful person could oppose presenting both sides of a question to the citizenry? To conservatives, it always had this Orwellian ring to it. Time would show that conservatives were closer to the mark.

During the 1964 Republican National Convention, Democratic Party operatives cooked up a scheme to use the Fairness Doctrine as a way to muzzle disciples of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.

“Our massive strategy,” former Kennedy administration official Bill Ruder later acknowledged, “was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters, and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too costly to continue.” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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