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The FCC won't be in our newsrooms any time soon

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OPINION AND ANALYSIS

The German secret police, known as The Stasi, censored news organizations and kept political free speech out of the control of news editors and very much in control of the police. And this wasn’t your old World War II Third Reich – this was just a few decades ago. And if it were not for a few courageous American journalists and politicians, our Federal Communications Commission (FCC) might have mimicked the Stasi censorship tactics. Between 1950 and 1989, the Stasi employed more than 90,000 and utilized more than 170,000 informants. And the KGB – the Soviet spy agency – loved what the Stasi was doing. Up until 1990 the KGB maintained liaison officers in all eight Stasi directorates. Whether Soviet or German news media, ideas which were sympathetic of capitalism or fascism were not allowed. Any idea which encouraged resistance to the government, such as conscientious objection, was not to be discussed. Negative portrayals of the government were censored, and that included criticisms and complaints about the standard of living and education in the country, and even calling attention to pollution and homosexuality. German Chancellor Angela Merkel compared the snooping practices of the US National Security Agency with those of the Stasi; she grew up in the old East Germany, but that’s another story. This opinion piece begs the question: how in the world could our executive branch and our FCC initiate a plan to infiltrate newsrooms across America? In the old East Bloc countries, the Goskomizdat censored all printed matter such as fiction and poetry; the Goskino censored cinema, and the Gosteleradio department was in charge of radio and television broadcasting. In America, the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Communication and Democracy, were tasked by the FCC with coming up with criteria for what information is "critical" for Americans to have. All five of the current FCC commissioners were nominated by President Barack Obama. Last May the FCC hired Social Solutions International of Silver Spring, MD to thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country. With its "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," or CIN, the agency planned to send researchers to question reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which news stories to run. This reporter is a proud undergraduate of the precursor to the Walter Cronkite School at Arizona State University, and a proud graduate of Iowa State University’s masters program in journalism. It was subjective at best for USC and U of Wisconsin to get involved and it was wrong for the FCC to ask them to get involved. Social Solutions International selected eight categories of "critical information" such as the "environment" and "economic opportunities," that it believes local newscasters should cover. It planned to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their "news philosophy" and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information. One question for reporters was: "Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?" Follow-up questions were to ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions. Memo to Social Solutions: as a journalist, I had numerous story ideas rejected, and as a newsroom supervisor, I rejected numerous. It happens. It’s normal, everyday business decision making. It’s about new information and recent or current events, and if there’s great pictures, it gets in. If it’s none of those, it might get rejected. An anchor on NBC’s Overnight – America’s first move toward a 24-hour news cycle – once said, “News is news, without the judgment call.” Sorry, Social Solutions, that’s all we got for ya. Stay out of our news rooms. We decide, and you watch. Or don’t watch. Some of Social Solutions gobbledygook in their proposal included “informing media ecologies” of their findings. “Media ecologies” is a new way to say “who the news organizations and owners are.” Because of the American backlash, Social Solutions’ plan suffered a painful death at the end of February when the FCC announced “the agency will not move forward” with the CIN Study. But it died an expensive death. According to the New York Daily News, by mid-February, 2014, the study had billed the FCC $500,000, and its big champion FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler expected "revisions that we may implement likely will require cost reassessments." President Obama once called Tom Wheeler “the Bo Jackson of telecom.” Thankfully, a concerned FCC commission member alerted the public to the awful Social Solutions plan, and when I asked Ajit Pai for a comment, he emailed me, saying, “I am pleased that the FCC has canceled its Critical Information Needs study. In our country, the government does not tell the people what information they need. Instead, news outlets and the American public decide that for themselves. I look forward to working with my colleagues to identify and remove actual barriers to entry into the communications industry. This newsroom study was a distraction from that important goal.” Commissioner Pai was nominated by President Obama, confirmed by the Senate and will serve on the FCC Commission through 2016. One obvious problem with the FCC overreach is that the FCC has never had authority over newspapers. But the Social Solutions team of Stasi apparatchik would have been in the shorts of radio, TV and newspaper staffers if the plan had gone forward. Commissioner Pai helped euthanize the Social Solutions plan by way of his Op Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal on February 10th. “The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories,” Pai’s article said. “Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission, where I am a commissioner, does not agree. The purpose of the CIN, according to the FCC, is to ferret out information from television and radio broadcasters about ‘the process by which stories are selected’ and how often stations cover ‘critical information needs,’ along with ‘perceived station bias’ and ‘perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.’ “Participation in the Critical Information Needs study was voluntary—in theory. Unlike the opinion surveys that Americans see on a daily basis and either answer or not, as they wish, the FCC's queries may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore. They would be out of business without an FCC license, which must be renewed every eight years.” And Pai reminded us that this is not the first time the agency has meddled in news coverage. “Before Critical Information Needs,” said Pai, “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. “The Fairness Doctrine was controversial and led to lawsuits throughout the 1960s and '70s that argued it infringed upon the freedom of the press. The FCC finally stopped enforcing the policy in 1987, acknowledging that it did not serve the public interest,” Pai said. Besides, we already have safeguards on the books such as the Equal Time Rule - section 315 of the Federal Communications Act - which says that if one candidate for office gets five minutes of exposure for free, the other candidate has to get the same. Social Solutions’ plan mentioned “the prevention of barriers” more times than this reporter could count, but we already have Section 257 of the Communications Act in place which is designed to “identify and eliminate, through regulatory action, market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications and information services, or in the provision of parts or services to providers.” This reporter worked in TV news for about 15 years and has written for newspapers and magazines. We celebrated when the Fairness Doctrine went away and we have struggled with the inherent farcical nature of the Equal Time Rule as we watched Jimmy Carter and Richard Daly sue over the law, and we watched as the law was bent to accommodate the Nixon-Kennedy debates, and decades of silliness that included the question: what if re-runs of Ronald Regan movies were counted as free air time during the election, or what if re-runs of Law and Order, featuring Fred Thompson, (former Tennessee senator) were considered freebies that placed his opponents in an un-equal position? And later, we saw court rulings and FCC changes that exempted Howard Stern, Phil Donohue and Jerry Springer. But still, the only regulated news industry held its head high. To this day, most surveys show broadcasting is where most Americans get their news. Pai helped to point out the ironies and hypocrisies… “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? “Should all stations follow MSNBC's example and cut away from a discussion with a former congresswoman about the National Security Agency's collection of phone records to offer live coverage of Justin Bieber's bond hearing? As a consumer of news, I have an opinion. But my opinion shouldn't matter more than anyone else's merely because I happen to work at the FCC.” More courage, from even the Obama-nominated regulators, will be needed if this country is to move forward to address its more serious needs.

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