Pushing back

FCC tries sniffing media, but it's the underlying purpose that smells

Some people called it the camel’s nose under the tent.


It smelled like an uncleaned zoo.

The Federal Communications Commission was all set to start poking around America’s newsrooms under the supposedly benign guise of a “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs.”

Before going further, let’s call it what it is. The “study” is nothing more than the government’s
attempt to embed a federal presence in American newsgathering operations.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the commission planned “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.”

Here’s one question that was planned to be asked of reporters: “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?”

How is that “critical information”? That’s just snooping.

The FCC even planned to sniff around newspaper offices, too – even though it has no regulatory authority over print media. The agency even had its eye on blogs and online-only news providers.

How would all that make you feel in a country whose laws promise its citizens a free press? What would you think about a government minder lurking in every newsroom, keeping tabs on all information that was released to the public? Would you feel safer and smarter, comrade?

Media outlets correctly exploded in outrage after hearing about the FCC’s planned study. Eleven days after it was announced, the agency backed off to say it was retooling the study with new questions.

Not good enough. A camel’s nose is a camel’s nose. Such an FCC “study” shouldn’t be attempted under any circumstances.

The logical leap here is small. The FCC is the agency responsible for granting and renewing broadcast licenses for TV and radio stations. If certain stations are gathering the news in ways the FCC deems unsuitable, then suddenly certain stations don’t get their licenses renewed.

Out of the realm of possibility? Hardly. There is mounting evidence of the government making its presence felt through similar moves that have the sour whiff of selective investigation or prosecution.

A low-profile Hollywood club called the Friends of Abe, named for Abraham Lincoln, is composed of like-minded conservative entertainers. It has sought 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status for the past two years but has been smothered in red tape. Of course that’s one of the many right-leaning groups that has fallen under superfluous IRS scrutiny.

More recently, there’s conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza – author of The Roots of Obama’s Rage and co-director of its film adaptation, 2016: Obama’s America. He is under indictment on charges of violating campaign finance laws.

While D’Souza’s possibility of guilt is being investigated, look closely too at how the conspicuous pursuit of conservative people and groups fit a pattern. It was exposed most openly by an inspector general with the IRS, who found that conservative groups critical of the government faced extra scrutiny from the tax agency.

As for the FCC? It stays within its regulatory bounds by examining the content of broadcast station in very general terms. It has no business acting as a tool of government intimidation by sifting though the substance of journalism.

How perverse that this administration, which is the most opaque in memory, wants the media to be more transparent.