We recognize that collectively the news media is not particularly popular with the American public these days, and as such may not always get a sympathetic ear. But we think Americans also recognize the fundamental necessity of a free and diverse press to the existence of this or any democracy. That is why we believe Americans should be taken aback by a proposal by the Obama administration, acting under the auspices of the Federal Communication Commission, to investigate how news organizations decide what to cover.
The plan drew attention and alarm from many quarters after FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai wrote an op-ed exposing the plan in The Wall Street Journal last week. He said the FCC proposes to send researchers into local newsrooms across the country as part of a "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs." The purpose of the plan, according to the agency, is to examine "the process by which stories are selected" and determine how well media outlets cover "critical information needs."
What, you may ask, are critical information needs? They are, of course, what the government says they are - in this case, such things as "the environment" and "economic opportunities." The agency also says it plans to include in its inquiry "perceived station bias" and "perceived responsiveness to underserved populations."
Further, the agency says it wants to question media company managers, news directors and reporters about their "news philosophy" and how they assure that the community gets "critical information" as defined by the government.
Pai writes that one question the FCC wants to ask reporters is, "Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management," and adds follow-up questions about the specifics of how editorial discretion is exercised.
And the justification for this study? The FCC says it needs the information for a report it is required to submit to Congress every three years on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry. No, we're not joking.
The FCC also wants to include newspapers in the inquiry, even though it has no regulatory jurisdiction over print media. It says participation will be voluntary, but since all TV and radio broadcasters owe their existence to the grant of an FCC license that must be renewed every eight years, the pressure to accede to the agency's intrusion is obvious. From a re-licensing perspective, the pressure on local media to shape its coverage to assuage the FCC list of "critical information needs" is likewise obvious, and insidious.
To say this government attempt to intrude into editorial decision-making by the nation's privately owned, local news organizations (including those it cannot even legally regulate) is chilling is an understatement. The FCC effort is but a thinly disguised political correctness test primarily aimed at government broadcast licensees. Its explanation that this information somehow relates to economic barriers to entry to potential competitors is absurd. Simply put, democratic governments have no business asking reporters, editors, news directors, or their bosses about their editorial decisions. That is the very essence of intimidation.
As Pai notes in his op-ed, one of the things that makes the American news industry great is that organizations as diverse as MSNBC and Fox News often disagree about what Americans need to know, the result being a broad, free marketplace of news and opinion for the American public to choose from. The FCC "study" appears in reality to be an administration effort to narrow and homogenize the editorial decisions of that free market at the local level. As a practical matter, it cannot help but have that effect.
Nothing could be more inconsistent with the core American right to a free press, immune from government interference. Many members of Congress, particularly on the GOP side, are expressing alarm and opposition. We hope the American people will join them.