A controversial news story that mainstream media outlets have under-reported could mean the end of the free press in America. The Obama administration is considering placing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigators in the country's newsrooms to influence which stories get reported on.
Called the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs (CINs) initiative the government’s stated objective is "to ascertain the process by which stories are selected, station priorities (for content production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias, perceived percent of news dedicated to each of the eight CIN's and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations."
The latest media czar flap comes on the heels of a federal appeals court ruling that said the FCC overstepped its legal authority in 2010 when it imposed so-called net neutrality regulations on Internet broadband companies and fiber-optic Internet providers like Comcast or Verizon FiOS. The FCC had done this despite language in federal law which forbade the regulations under a "common carrier" provision.
While insertion FCC operatives into the nation’s newsrooms was first proposed by the Obama administration last May, Republican lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee this month sent a letter to Obama-appointed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler protesting the contentious initiative.
For his part, Wheeler said in a Feb. 14 letter that his agency "has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters" through this study.
Nevertheless, GOP lawmakers warn that the latest press reform proposed by the White House amounts to "Fairness Doctrine 2.0," in reference to a failed Democrat-sponsored policy that would have required broadcasters to provide what was “deemed” by the government to be “balanced coverage” of major issues.
Meanwhile, Mike Cavender, director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said in a statement that the administration’s plan is an "ill-conceived study." He said that regardless of the agency's motives, "even the concept of a study like this is enough to chill every journalist and every station which prides itself on journalistic independence.”
Cavender questioned why the FCC would “need this information and what possible use can it be to the regulatory body that impacts every broadcast station in this country?
We think it's clearly an overreach by the Commission," he said. "... The FCC should scrap the entire idea and leave any concerns about news coverage to the professionals in the newsroom -- not the regulators in Washington.”
“Where it really needs to go is onto the trash heap," added Cavender.
Mainstream broadcast media outlets have done minimal reporting on the issue, however critics say putting FCC agents in America’s newsrooms paves the way for government's direct infringement on freedom of the press.
Under the plan FCC "researchers" would identify key topics that the government believes should be covered in media broadcasts as well as question reporters about their "news philosophy."
The Obama administration's plan to insert FCC components into newsrooms across America has ignited a firestorm of criticism from congressional Republicans and conservative groups; however, mainstream media has done little reporting on the issue.
Nevertheless, criticism of the administration’s plan is not limited to conservative critics or the Republican Party. FCC commissioner Ajit Pai said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece Wednesday that the May 2013 proposal would allow researchers to “grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run.” Pai expressed concerns that such an investigative study might intimidate news teams and stifle freedom of the press.
“The American people, for their part, disagree about what they want to watch,” wrote Pai, an appointed member of FCC’s five-member commission . “But everyone should agree on this: The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.”