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Freedom of the press, the FCC, and the 'House of Cards'

Seal of the FCC
Seal of the FCC

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is a small federal agency making news and generating headlines about the role of government and freedom of the press in the United States. In the latest wrinkle, on February 21st, the agency was forced to suspend plans for a survey of television and radio stations after it became public knowledge and generated widespread dissatisfaction about the government taking steps seen as an attempt to assert control the content of America's news programs despite the prohibitions of the First Amendment.

While the agency's suspension of its proposed survey just occurred, the agency has also been busy trying to regulate the internet as it does other industries in the communications field. An appellate court recently ruled that the FCC had not provided a justifiable legal rationale for its Internet rules. But, undeterred, during the same week it has been accused to ignoring the First Amendment and inserting the federal government into what is acceptable news for the American public, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency will move out to preserve the Internet “as an open platform for innovation and expression while providing certainty and predictability in the marketplace.”

The FCC rules on net neutrality are supposed to make it easier to give new companies starting up (perhaps the next Netflix) a chance to become successful without being penalized by cable companies and broadband providers providing only slower internet speed. He said he would do this by setting an enforceable legal standard that provides guidance to both consumers and broadband companies. Certainly, there are some favorable aspects for the public as the agency strains to add to its power base in the Washington political arena without any apparent involvement by Congress in its search for new areas to regulate.

It is appropriate that the FCC's actions come shortly after Netflix released the second season of "House of Cards." There is plenty of irony in the current actions of the FCC and the Netflix portrayal of our political leadership.

For those who are unfamiliar with the "House of Cards" series, political leaders are immoral, power seeking, manipulative, murderous people who will stop at nothing to enhance their power and careers. Kevin Spacey plays the leading role. The series is well-written and entertaining. The main character is mean, murderous and manipulative in his quest for more power and seeking to bend others to his will. In the character's own words, while he was the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives in the first season, “I may lie, cheat and intimidate to get what I want, but at least I get the job done. So I hope some of you were taking notes.”

Most other politicians in the series are no better. It is not a pretty picture of America's elected leaders. In another irony, despite the negative portrayal of politicians, many of our elected leaders watch and obviously like and admire the show.

A particular irony to those who appreciate the actions of our political class: South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn participates in the video described below. The Congressman's daughter, Mignon Clyburn, is a member of the FCC and was in charge of the controversial study for the FCC in South Carolina regarding the role of government in presentation of news. Perhaps it is just an example of life imitating art.

The series is wildly popular. It is especially popular with some politicians although it isn't clear why. In fact, some politicians decided to play a role in a video parody of the series. Kevin Spacey's character was the majority whip in the House of Representatives in the first season. The video parody features the real Majority Whip, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) along with other members of Congress including Jim Clyburn, Trey Gowdy, Donna Edwards, Jeff Duncan and Sen. Tim Scott reading the lines from Spacey's character in the series.

Why would politicians participate in a video being portrayed as corrupt politicians in this way?

It may be that they live in the "beltway bubble" and they do not see politicians as those outside the Washington metropolitan area often see them--a public perception which is often just as negative as they are portrayed in the series. Or, perhaps, they like the idea of being portrayed as making decisions with tactics not unknown to the Soprano's--it makes them look strong, decisive and powerful--in addition to lacking any morals, ethics or common human decency. While the series is gripping, entertaining and well written, those familiar with history could be forgiving for wondering if this is how the politics of the Roman Empire were conducted in its latter stages of decadence, decline and corruption.

Or, as Peggy Noonan wrote in a recent column, "maybe they’re just stupid."

Sometimes art, including a TV series, tells us more about ourselves than we realize. Certainly, it is not uncommon for elected leaders to try to gain power and expand their influence. What this series may reveal is that we are more susceptible to the electorate have less influence and our most basic government documents no longer controlling actions of the federal government continues to expand power in all areas while our elected leaders more often reflect immoral and indecent people than we would like to imagine. At a minimum, the actions of the FCC and the popularity and depiction of our government "House of Cards" is an ironic coincidence.

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