Thanks to the Federal Communications Commission, two groups - journalists and Republican congressmen - are about to demonstrate whether they value the First Amendment enough to fight for it. The occasion for this demonstration was provided by the FCC's plan to send its news police into print and broadcast newsrooms across the nation to study “the process by which [news] stories are selected.” The alleged purpose of the study, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, is to determine if the news process serves the American public's “critical information needs,” and whether there are ways the FCC can “encourage effective, pro-competitive policies that would encourage new entrants.”
As for concerns of Republican congressmen, Wheeler cooed in the most soothing tone possible his reassurance that the FCC “has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters.” But any Republican who accepts Wheeler’s words at face value -- or believes anything else the FCC majority says about its newsroom invasion -- has learned nothing about the way things work in the nation’s capital. For confirmation, they should listen to another FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, who was appointed as a Republican by President Obama.
Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, Pai scoffed at the claim that the study is nothing more than an attempt to help new market entrants: “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?”
Even more to the point, why does the FCC intend to ask reporters if they’ve ever suggested a story that an editor rejected? They can claim whatever they like, but asking gossipy questions of people working where the FCC has no authority should persuade skeptics that these bureaucrats aren’t simply looking for ways to help new entrants in the media market.
The testing of journalists and Republicans will come in two distinct phases, with the former getting the first go at it this spring, when the FCC begins dispatching its news police to newspaper and television newsrooms. Broadcast license-holders likely can’t refuse entry to the FCC inquisitors, but the journalists working in broadcast newsrooms have zero obligation to respond to any questions. As for the newspapers, the owners, publishers, editors and reporters aren’t subject to the FCC’s authority, so the agency should be barred from the premises. Any journalist in any newsroom that cooperates in any way with the FCC should have to find a new career.
Congressional Republicans must realize that sternly worded letters like the Dec. 11, 2013, remonstrance from the majority members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee aren't enough: "It is wrong, it is unconstitutional, and we urge you to put a stop to this most recent attempt to engage the FCC as the 'news police.'" The FCC must be put on notice now that the next GOP Congress will defund the study and slash the commission's budget. Then do it.