EDITORIAL: FCC study hostile to journalism

During the more than five years that Barack Obama has been president, his administration has consistently demonstrated a disdain for the free press, monitoring the phone records of The Associated Press, tracking the movements of Fox News’ James Rosen, pursuing leakers with Nixonian zeal and limiting news conferences in favor of softball interviews.

As late as last week, the Federal Communications Commission was prepared to take that disdain even further.

The FCC’s “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” got its first widespread exposure in a Feb. 10 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Ajit Pai, part of the commission’s Republican minority. Mr. Pai wrote that “the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run.” The researchers would even be sent to newspapers, over which the FCC has no authority whatsoever. According to The Washington Examiner’s Byron York, the purpose of this exercise was to determine whether journalists are producing content that meets the public’s “critical information needs” — as determined by the government.

The FCC enlisted two prominent universities to assist with creating the study: the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Communication and Democracy. Any school or center that purports to promote journalism and democracy but agrees to help enable such government intrusion on news gathering ought to have its accreditation revoked.

But the two schools were too happy to oblige the FCC, with Mr. York noting the study identified eight critical-needs areas of information: emergencies and risks; health and welfare; education; transportation; economic opportunities; the environment; civic information; and political information. There’s no room for politicizing any of those topics, right?

As Mr. Pai stated: “An enterprising regulator could run wild with a lot of these topics. The implicit message to the newsroom is they need to start covering these eight categories in a certain way, or otherwise the FCC will go after them.”

The FCC’s ridiculous initiative highlights the Obama administration’s stunning overall hostility toward the First Amendment. Any desire to supervise or control the media is an absolute hallmark of a dictator at worst, an oppressive government at the least. What makes this overreach even more extraordinary, however, is that the bulk of the national media already fawn over the Obama administration, openly and brazenly slanting coverage of many issues in favor of the president. Imagine how far the FCC would be willing to go if the national press actually asked tough questions?

The fallout from Mr. Pai’s op-ed and an avalanche of subsequent follow-up prompted FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to issue a statement Thursday that the agency will back off the initiative “until a new study design is final.” This initiative — which no doubt had the administration’s backing — was an offensive, frightening overstep of authority by the FCC. So how about this for a new study design: Put the old design in the shredder and never revisit it again.

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