In a column published in the Grand Forks Herald today I make a tongue-in-cheek argument for regulating the 1st amendment rights of media outlets. Certain editorial boards in the state seem to feel that energy development on private property near “extraordinary places” should be open to public comment, so why not subject journalism on extraordinary topics to the same standard? Since, you know, these rights aren’t absolute and stuff.
Little did I know that something just like that was underway by the Federal Communications Commission.
Ajit Pai, a member of the commission, writes in the Wall Street Journal today about a plan to but federal regulators in news rooms to monitor how editors and producers decide what to report:
Last May the FCC proposed an initiative to thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country. With its “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” or CIN, the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run. A field test in Columbia, S.C., is scheduled to begin this spring.
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.”
How does the FCC plan to dig up all that information? First, the agency selected eight categories of “critical information” such as the “environment” and “economic opportunities,” that it believes local newscasters should cover. It plans 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.
The FCC also wants to wade into office politics. One question for reporters is: “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 ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions.
The proper answer to the FCC from any news person worth their salt should be, one would hope, “none of your business.” The 1st amendment doesn’t guarantee the freedom of the press to print the news as the government deems appropriate. It guarantees the freedom of the press.
Though I expect what will be even more depressing than the FCC pulling this stunt (all the more reason to keep that agency’s hands off the internet) is how many in the news industry will probably roll over for it.