Freedom of the Press Under Fire

That the FCC threatened to invade newsrooms should be concerning to all.

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The Federal Communications Commission has announced it will not be sending government researchers into newsrooms to question reporters and their bosses about their outlets’ editorial processes and philosophies.

Let me offer what should be the response of every right-thinking reporter in the Western world: You’re damn right.

In a free society, the state does not get to interrogate members of the media. Yet that is what the FCC, a majority-Democrat regulatory body, was planning to do until three days ago. Via an important-sounding project called the "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," the agency has been preparing to deploy government agents to print and broadcast outlets in order to explore whether those outlets’ reporting exhibits bias or fails to meet the “critical” needs of Americans.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

“Critical according to whom?” the penetrating reader may be asking himself. Which is, of course, the point. In a free society, the press and the people get to decide what news is important, not a government agency. One might even argue the mark of an un-free society is that a government agency has the power to interfere with the press. 

Some believe the study would allow the FCC to pressure outlets into reporting stories more friendly to the current administration and its agenda, an outcome that should be extraordinarily troubling even to those media members who generally agree with the president’s worldview. Others suspect the goal is to pave the way for more minority ownership of news outlets, long a hobbyhorse of one of the commissioners. It should go without saying that control over who does the reporting is tantamount to control over what gets reported -- but in the end, the reasons for the study, good or bad, are basically irrelevant. In a free society, the media’s job is to hold the government accountable, not the other way around.

Fortunately, after a number of mostly conservative publications made a stink last week, the FCC backed down, saying it would no longer require station managers, news directors or reporters to submit to questioning. But although the bullet has been dodged, the fact that it was fired in the first place should be deeply concerning to us all.