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FCC vs. 1st Amendment

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In what may be one of the most controversial programs ever initiated by a federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission is about to commence a research effort entitled “critical information needs” (known as CIN) involving Washington oversight of broadcasters and journalists throughout America. It would place government employees in the private internal conversations and meetings of journalists, media organizations, and even internet sites.

According to the FCC, the effort is designed to address three core questions:

“1. How do Americans meet critical information needs?

2. How does the media ecosystem operate to address critical information needs?

3. What barriers exist in providing content and services to address critical information needs?”

The breadth of what’s covered is a comprehensive list of what the public sees, hears, reads, or surfs. It includes television and radio broadcast content, articles printed in daily and weekly newspapers, and even what’s placed on line on the internet. In addition, a so-called “qualitative analysis of media providers” would be included.

Many observers are deeply concerned about the concept of a government agency making value judgments about news reporting, particularly in cases where those news items may be critical of the very government that is engaged in such oversight.

Worried First Amendment advocates and journalists who have expressed opposition to President Obama’s policies see this as an attempt to use the Federal Communications Commission to intimidate broadcasters and news writers in much the same way his Administration has been accused of using the Internal Revenue Service to attack opposing political groups such as the Tea Party.

Work on the concept began in 2012. The Annenberg School of Communication, which according to a study by the conservative-oriented Breitbart news agency is operated by the “same entity that employed both Barack Obama and domestic terrorist William Ayers in Chicago in the late 1990s and early 2000s,” carried out the initial research.

The Social Solutions International Corporation was then retained by the FCC to organize a study and a final report, which was issued in April 2013.

Among the items the Social Solutions Corporations reviewed:

· the access (or potential barriers) to critical information needs as identified by the FCC;

· the types of media that are broadcasting or writing about news; and

· interaction of the media with so-called diverse communities.

This spring, field testing of the concept will begin.

This effort is so unusual that that even some within the Federal Communications Commission are crying foul. In a recent Wall Street Journal guest article by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai that is credited with bringing widespread attention to the issue, Commissioner Pai expressed his concern that this was an attempt to pressure media organizations into providing overage according to the whims of the government.

The FCC claims that the effort is to insure that listeners, viewers or readers get information bureaucrats consider crucial. The effort is billed as being “voluntary,” but the implication is clear: those refusing to comply could be in jeopardy of not having their broadcasting licenses renewed, or be subjected, in the case of print or internet organizations, to other harassing actions.

The FCC also claims that it wants to “eliminate barriers” for others, including small and minority businesses, to enter into the news field. Commissioner Pai notes that 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?

There are significant questions about what the FCC is attempting to do. There are no barriers, or even much cost, to placing your views on the internet. What possible excuse could Washington have to attempt to intervene in this process?

Opponents say the entire concept is overtly unconstitutional. In the past, there were programs, such as the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated broadcast outlets to give equal time to opposing sides. That idea, they maintain, died a well-deserved death. The CIN concept is markedly different from the Fairness Doctrine, which did pass Supreme Court review.

For the first time, it opens the door to allowing the federal government to directly intervene in the news process, and to establish a basis to news content on television, radio, in newspapers, magazines, and, remarkably, even on the internet.

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