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Critics say FCC plan to monitor newsrooms will lead to government control

Ajit Pai, FCC commissioner, speaks in Washington, D.C.
Ajit Pai, FCC commissioner, speaks in Washington, D.C.
Federal Communications Commission

When a report surfaced earlier this month that the Federal Communications Commission was planning to monitor the nation’s television and newspaper editorial coverage, supposedly in response to a congressional mandate aimed at discovering any barriers to minority ownership and management of news operations, barely a ripple of opposition ensued.

A few weeks later, however, that has changed. Opponents of the plan say that, in reality, it is nothing more than an attempt by the Obama administration to control issue narratives by pressuring news organizations to cover certain issues while ignoring others.

If that sounds like just another kooky conspiracy theory, you should know that controlling content – or rather, mandating certain content – regarding political coverage was a core FCC function until the late 1980s. And according to at least one sitting FCC commissioner, this latest study, as the FCC is calling it, appears on the surface to be an effort to revive that core function.

In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal today, Commissioner Ajit Pai writes that the plan, which is formally called a “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” or CIN, smacks of an attempt by the FCC to bring back the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” (here’s a great book that explains its history and implications), an old FCC regulation which mandated that broadcasters give equal coverage to both sides of a political issue, a rule that sounds “fair” on the surface but which, in essence, served to stifle debate. Pai, who was nominated for a Republican Party position on the panel by, oddly enough, President Obama explains:

“This is not the first time the agency has meddled in news coverage. Before Critical Information Needs, there was the FCC's now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, which began in 1949 and required equal time for contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues. Though the Fairness Doctrine ostensibly aimed to increase the diversity of thought on the airwaves, many stations simply chose to ignore controversial topics altogether, rather than air unwanted content that might cause listeners to change the channel.”

He goes onto say that, throughout its history, the doctrine was the subject of numerous lawsuits because, the litigants contended, it amounted to little more than government control of content, a opinion Pai agrees with.

How can such a rule stand in a country whose freedom of the press is enshrined in its founding document, would be a slam-dunk for reversal in federal court? Because the doctrine had its advocates, both in the public policy realm and in the courts.

It took executive action by President Ronald Reagan, in 1987, to ditch the rule. And when the FCC did, the result was the restoration a true consumer-driven environment of political debate, resulting in the revival of old, failing mediums like talk radio.

That should have been the end of it but, says noted conservative author Brad O’Leary, whose 2009 book, “Shut Up, America,” explains the history of the Fairness Doctrine, there are still people in Washington who abhor dissent of any kind and seek to control the “debate” by controlling the issues presented to the public.

Hence, the FCC’s plan to “monitor” newsrooms.

As Pai writes, it is an odd plan, given the commission’s stated goal of studying minority media ownership. As Pai writes:

“The FCC says the study is merely an objective fact-finding mission. The results will inform a report that the FCC must submit to Congress every three years on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry.

“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?”

Critics of the media already complain that there are too many political agendas at work when it comes to the presentation of news perspectives and decisions about which issues to cover (and, alternately, which to ignore). This FCC “study” will only serve to further solidify the view of many Americans that their news is filtered and, as such, politically biased.

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