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First Amendment regulation, FCC Chairman and ensuring protection for journalists

Thomas Wheeler testifies in his confirmation hearing to become Federal Communications Commission chairman, on June 18, 2013 in Washington D.C.
Thomas Wheeler testifies in his confirmation hearing to become Federal Communications Commission chairman, on June 18, 2013 in Washington D.C.
Photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Mistrust of government is not a new thing, but back-and-forth remarks and correspondence between the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Congress may underscore the need for clarification and further scrutiny for media being regulated.

When Congress first heard testimony from then-FCC chair candidate Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist, he stated that he believed in competition. Wheeler told the Commerce Committee:

"I am an unabashed supporter of competition. I believe the role of the FCC has evolved from acting in the absence of competition to dictate the market, to promoting and protecting competition with appropriate oversight to see what flourishes."

As a candidate to become FCC chairman, Wheeler met with some skepticism.

Former lobbyist Wheeler

From Time online's writer Sam Gustin then:

"U.S. President Barack Obama named prominent venture capitalist Tom Wheeler as his nominee to be the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, as expected. In a brief White House ceremony on Wednesday, Obama said that Wheeler will help give 'businesses and workers the tools they need to compete in the 21st century economy.' .... Wheeler, a former top cable and wireless industry lobbyist, raised more than $700,000 for Obama’s two presidential election campaigns."

News from the website Broadcasting&Cable today assures their readers that Wheeler has assured the chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee that the FCC "has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters" via its Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs...."

Nevertheless there are concerns from Congress regarding the FCC chairman and plans, as it appears to be an examination of political speech across media platforms, which obviously triggers serious First Amendment concerns. In light of the Internal Revenue Service admissions and the targeting of mostly conservative groups for more scrutiny, issues have been voiced.

The FCC's Multi-Market Study is described by Social Solutions International:

"Social Solutions has been tasked with the development of a research design that can be used to identify and understand the critical information needs (CINs) of the American public (with special emphasis on vulnerable/disadvantaged populations)."

Newsroom intimidation?

It seems benign, but the study begins this year and sends interrogators into selected news organizations to collect a broad range of information. Questions arise. For instance, why does the FCC want to interrogate news people on their viewpoints, topic selections, management styles or any news organization circumstances? It does appear to be an effort by the FCC to invade and interrogate news producers and reporters about their work and content choices.

A letter from Congressman Fred Upton on the House E & C Committee, requesting that the FCC suspend the study, was mentioned in the Broadcasting&Cable article. Upton believed the study included provisions for "FCC funded agents to question the editorial decisions of journalists, producers, and other news professionals." Further, according to reporter John Eggerton:

"They saw that as the FCC putting itself back in the business of controlling political speech, the "back" being a reference to the former Fairness Doctrine requirement that broadcasters seek out opposing viewpoints on issues of importance."

In 2011 Vista's Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wanted to know why former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was so very frequently at the White House during the period when the FCC was drafting so-called “Net Neutrality” regulations which it proposed for the Internet, according to a report in NewsMax.

Some may be wondering about new director Wheeler's efforts to "study" targeted news organizations now. They may be especially concerned due to previous reports of what appeared to be collusion in the IRS-targeting scandal, as mentioned by Congressman Issa and reported in the Examiner:

"... the bureau and political appointees at the Justice Department are trying to hinder the Oversight panel’s investigation into the IRS targeting of tax-exempt groups."

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