Editorial: FCC threatens press freedom

A Times editorial
Posted 3/3/14

Government censors reading news stories over a reporter’s shoulder and steering interviews with a scowl sounds like a surreal scene in a George Orwell novel. But that was bureaucrats’ vision for the future of American news media.

The …

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Editorial: FCC threatens press freedom

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Government censors reading news stories over a reporter’s shoulder and steering interviews with a scowl sounds like a surreal scene in a George Orwell novel. But that was bureaucrats’ vision for the future of American news media.

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday announced it would abandon plans to place media monitors in print and broadcast newsrooms under the auspices of studying the editorial decision-making process. The agency threw up its hands after a barrage of criticism from press freedom groups, conservative pundits and Republican lawmakers.

The innocuous-sounding Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs would have involved a sweeping survey of American media including television and radio stations and even newspapers, which the FCC has no authority to regulate.

While Congress raised questi ons and pundits fumed, one of the agency’s commissioners was working diligently to dismantle the study from the inside. Ajit Pai lobbied against the plan in a forceful Wall Street Journal op-ed that echoed many of our concerns.

“This study would have thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country, somewhere it just doesn’t belong,” Pai said in a Friday statement the FCC released on its website. “The commission has now recognized that no study by the federal government, now or in the future, should involve asking questions to media owners, news directors or reporters about their practices.”

It’s encouraging that at least one member of the unelected FCC understands how outlandishly inappropriate such an exercise would have been. But before sounding the horn for a long-overdue retreat, the FCC tried to defend the study and suggested concerns over censorship were unfounded.

If the FCC wants to make news judgment its business and gather voluminous data on how reporters, editors and news directors decide how and what to report, taking steps to influence coverage can’t be far behind. That should frighten not just journalists, but all American citizens who want a free and independent press.

Even if the exercise were strictly academic, with FCC researchers compiling data and chronicling how newsrooms handle content decisions, the mere presence of federal functionaries would likely intimidate some outlets to self-censor. Would TV and radio stations air stories critical of government policy with “researchers” who report to political appointees glowering in the corner?

Including newspapers in the media study was an obvious blunder. Unlike radio and television stations, the print media does not utilize public airwaves. The First Amendment shields print publications from censorship. Prior review — the practice of government screening stories before they’re published — is itself a form of censorship.

We doubt self-respecting newspapers would have agreed to open their doors to FCC researchers. Here at The Wilson Times, President and Publisher Morgan Dickerman signed a petition urging Congress to short-circuit the shortsighted study.

While we can say no, it’s less clear that radio and TV stations would have the same discretion even if participation in the study were voluntary. The FCC issues, renews and can cancel broadcast licenses. The implicit threat of more scrutiny from broadcast regulators might be enough to make station managers buckle.

A Congress with record-low approval ratings had the rare chance to play the hero, and many Republican lawmakers seized the opportunity, holding hearings and writing strongly worded letters. But Capitol Hill was only cleaning up a mess it created.

“By law, the FCC must report to Congress every three years on the barriers that may prevent entrepreneurs and small businesses from competing in the media marketplace,” FCC spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said, “and pursue policies to eliminate those barriers.”

The government ought not concern itself with such matters. Eliminating barriers to competition sounds an awful lot like picking winners and losers. Congress and the FCC have no place deciding which news outlets prosper. Readers, viewers, listeners and advertisers hold the power in the self-regulating media marketplace.

As it is, the FCC has too much influence over the content of broadcast news. If Congress feels the urge to intervene, it should curtail the agency’s powers rather than expand them.