published Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Obama's FCC may be coming to examine a newsroom near you

Every three years, the Federal Communications Commission must submit a report to Congress on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry.

Sounds reasonable, right?

But one of the methods the federal agency will use this year is a "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," in which it will send researchers into newsrooms across the country to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run.

This alarmed FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who wrote a recent opinion piece about it in the Wall Street Journal, and it ought to alarm you, too. Big time.

The purpose of the Critical Information Needs study, according to the agency, is to learn 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."

To do so, according to Pai, the FCC selected eight categories of "critical information" such as the "environment" and "economic opportunities," that it believes local newscasters should cover. In turn, researchers plan to ask the various broadcast folks about their "news philosophy" and how their stations ensure the community gets critical information.

Go back and read the previous two paragraphs. Absolutely chilling.

Forget that the intrusions into broadcast newsrooms have next to nothing to do with eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry. No, these border on serious freedom of the press breaches.

Oh, the FCC says the study is just an objective, fact-finding mission and participation is voluntary, but what station would bite the hand of the agency that holds its renewable-every-eight-years FCC license?

If the federal agency is checking on these things, how far away are we from FCC regulations that mandate that news broadcasts must have, just to pick a few, at least one pro-environmental activism story, representation in at least one report by every minority represented by 5 percent of residents in the specific broadcast area, one story that shows LGBT tolerance and one story that demonstrates the effectiveness of the Affordable Care Act, which, of course, is law, but changes by the day.

It's not just news coverage the FCC is interested in, though, but why the decisions were made to air what is aired.

One question to be asked reporters, according to Pai, 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, the reasoning behind whatever decisions were made and the demographics of news-management staff, news-production staff and on-air talent.

For goodness sake, what business is that of theirs?

A field test of the study was supposed to begin this week in Columbia, S.C., according to a Fox News blog, but no FCC representatives had shown up.

The FCC only has jurisdiction over the broadcast industry, so television networks, local television stations and most radio stations could get this initial scrutiny. But one can imagine similar plans being crafted by the touchy Obama White House for cable news stations and print publications, which don't come under the FCC.

This Big Brother-type action follows the recent Reporters Without Borders list that dropped the United States in the World Press Freedom Index 2014 from 33rd to 46th, the 2012 Department of Justice seizure as reported by The Associated Press in 2013 of the phone records of several AP reporters and editors, the president's granting of special access to reporters who give him preferential coverage and the removal of access to those who don't, the White House's poor record of complying with Freedom of Information Act requests and its restriction of videos and photos of the president by journalists in favor of administration handout material.

All this comes from an administration that brought you its Internal Revenue Service's targeting of conservatives and conservative groups, frequent rule by executive order, and its truthiness -- to use a Stephen Colbert word -- of its Affordable Care Act promises.

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