Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission say they have absolutely no plans to censor the press.
"The commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wrote to a group of House Republicans on Feb. 14, after controversy erupted over an FCC project to question journalists to determine whether their articles, commentaries, and newscasts meet government-determined "critical information needs."
Likewise, FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a key backer of the project, said during her Senate confirmation hearing back in 2009 that the FCC "is not in the business of censoring speech or content on the basis of political views and opinions."
They no doubt believe what they say. So what explains the FCC's — or at least the Democratic side of the FCC's — willingness to embark on an effort that many journalists felt infringed on some of the nation's most cherished First Amendment protections?
The answer lies in the firm belief among many on the Left, and that includes some in the FCC, that the media is in dire need of "reform."
Angry and troubled by the continued success of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and other conservative programs and personalities, media reformers say the press is under such tight corporate control that "independent" voices have been drowned out and many Americans receive a dangerously one-sided diet of information.
The answer, those reformers believe, is strong government action to create more "diversity" in the media. If more women and minorities, in particular, own and control media outlets, the idea goes, the less influence Limbaugh, Fox, et al. will have.
In 2011, Commissioner Clyburn appeared at an event called the National Conference for Media Reform, staged annually by a left-leaning media activist organization called Free Press. From the audience came a question: "I understand the Fairness Doctrine is not coming back, but why has the FCC sat by and allowed angry, hateful, often racist talk show hosts, 95 percent of whom are conservative, to poison the supposedly public airwaves?"
The crowd erupted in applause. Clyburn began her answer by suggesting her heart was with the questioner. "This is when the personal side of Mignon and the professional side of Mignon are at constant war," she said. On the one hand, America has free speech for all, "and when we talk about those freedoms of expression, that sometimes mean expressions which we don't agree with."
On the other hand, Clyburn said, she would like to see government use its power to weaken those "angry voices." She encouraged the crowd to keep "pushing this agency and pushing the powers that be to help diversify [the media]. If you have more options, you have more opportunities to get more voices across … and the voices that we might have problems with become less popular, and we don't have to worry about that."
At another point in her appearance, Clyburn threw out an idea — she said she was not advocating it but simply bringing it up — that the government dispense with the requirement that broadcasters serve the public interest and instead impose a heavy new tax on corporate media, using the proceeds "to create another ecosystem that would have more voices, independent voices."
Given the discussions floating around the conference — it was attended by lefty journalists like Amy Goodman, Glenn Greenwald, Katrina vanden Heuvel and many others, as well as powerful Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — Clyburn's proposal was not at all out of place. And it showed the degree to which some on the FCC would like to see radical changes in American media and journalism. (Clyburn appeared with fellow commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat who has had a strong influence on her thinking.)
The FCC "critical information needs" that Clyburn advocated was part of a larger media diversity plan; the idea was that FCC reformers needed to collect more data on media shortcomings in order to press the case for more diversity.
And in the end, for the reformers, more diversity means less Limbaugh and Fox. In 2007, the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, relying on a study done by Free Press, noted that radio stations owned by large broadcast groups are more likely to air conservative hosts, while "stations owned by women, minorities, or local owners are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows."
The bottom line is that some liberal commissioners on the FCC are on a mission: silence, or at least quiet, conservative voices in the media. Given that, the "critical information needs" study seems less an aberration than business as usual at the FCC.