There’s no such thing as the government “just asking questions.” That’s something both the public and the country’s news organizations should keep in mind as they read Ajit Pai’s important piece in the Wall Street Journal today. Pai is one of five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with regulating and licensing broadcast media, and he is rightfully disturbed by one of the FCC’s current projects.

Known as “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” (CIN), the FCC’s latest bright idea is to send representatives to press outlets to grill them on story selection and “perceived station bias,” among other red flags. Of course, the agency is going in with its own ideas about what such terms mean. Pai notes that a field test of this program is scheduled for this spring. He continues:

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.

Participation in the Critical Information Needs study is voluntary—in theory. Unlike the opinion surveys that Americans see on a daily basis and either answer or not, as they wish, the FCC’s queries may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore. They would be out of business without an FCC license, which must be renewed every eight years.

Pai recalls the FCC’s thuggish Fairness Doctrine, through which unelected bureaucrats were given the power to micromanage news content. The Fairness Doctrine was beloved by liberals, especially in recent decades as the left’s media dominance was challenged by the discovery that if given a choice, no one wanted to listen to them. The left’s response to losing an argument is to have the government shut down the other side, and there were hopes among Democrats that the Fairness Doctrine could be used to crack down on the First Amendment rights proving so bothersome to them.

But there’s another context for this FCC stunt: the debate over a so-called shield law for journalists. As I noted back in July, there is a congressional effort led by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin to pass legislation that would put on the books a federal law–most of the states already have such laws–to “shield” reporters from having to divulge sources. It is carried out ostensibly under the banner of protecting the press and therefore defending the First Amendment.

If only. In truth, there are two main problems with a federal shield law that would render it harmful to freedom of the press. The first is that in order to legislate protections for a specific group, you have to define that group. That means for a federal shield law, the government would get to be the final arbiter on the question of who is a journalist. Thus the government could easily play favorites and have yet another accreditation–not unlike an FCC license, in a way–to hold over the heads of the press.

The second problem with a federal shield law is that there would almost certainly be vague national-security carve-outs, which are often couched in terms like “compelling public interest.” That means the protections would likely evaporate anyway in most high-profile cases. The shield law, then, would be corrosive to the protections currently afforded the press.

It is such rules the FCC’s CIN calls to mind. It opens the door to increased government scrutiny of the press, with an implicit threat to a broadcaster’s license. It does so under the guise of public service and quality control and fairness and other terms that usually hint the government is up to no good. And if established without challenge, it would grant the premise that news judgment is the FCC’s business.

Perhaps this can still be avoided if the press puts up a united front against this intrusion, but the implicit threat is already out there. The media should be able to tell the FCC to get lost on this one. In a perfect world, of course, they wouldn’t have to.

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