Despite FCC Retreat, Free Speech Still Under Fire from Obama Administration

By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is claiming that it is backing off of its Orwellian plans to intimidate newsrooms across America into joining the Obama Revolution in “transforming America.” Their latest message is, in essence, if you like your sources of news, you can keep your sources of news. But just like when President Obama made that promise as it related to your doctors and your health care plan, they don’t mean it for a second. It’s just what they believe they need to say at this time to deceive the public and advance their agenda.

The FCC was due to start its Critical Information Needs (CIN) survey in Columbia, South Carolina last week amid a media firestorm over this regulatory body’s decision to peer into newsrooms’ news-making philosophies and story selection criteria. Now the FCC says it will revise the study but still move forward with it, which raises as many questions as they sought to quell. For example, an article in National Review Online says that up to now, the FCC “has been consistently blocked in its efforts to establish race-based media ownership rules—on the grounds that it did not have data to justify such rulemaking.” But, it adds, there is now “a movement to make the CIN a mechanism for gathering such data.” As The Daily Caller points out, this “raises a new concern that the FCC may use the new version to revise media ownership rules and base them on race.”

The FCC, in a statement on February 21st concerning the change of plans, said that “Chairman [Tom] Wheeler agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required.” Who says anything is required, in terms of the government shaping the news we see and hear? In fact, they overstepped the bounds of what is acceptable, and what is constitutional. And they acted like this was just a messaging error. Investor’s Business Daily called for abolishing the FCC in an editorial, and pointed out that the commission claimed in its Friday press release “that it was ‘Setting the Record Straight On The Draft Study’ (as if the problem was bad reporting rather than an atrocious idea).”

As Accuracy in Media reported on February 7, this is but one of several threats to free speech in our nation, and could lead to the revival of a new version of the Fairness Doctrine. And we weren’t the only ones, or the first to attempt to call attention to this outrageous attempt by the Obama administration to try to intimidate newsrooms into compliance with their ideas of what should be reported and how. We already know which of their scandals they want to convince us are phony scandals—such as the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups and Benghazi—and which news sources they believe need re-education, or banning, which would include the Fox News Channel and most of talk radio. They appear to be tossing out a big net to attempt to regulate what those sources put out.

And while this story is still largely confined to conservative media outlets, it has gotten a lot of attention in recent days. The trigger for the story gaining critical mass appears to have been a February 10th Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Ajit Pai, one of the two Republican members of the current five-person commission, who was appointed by President Obama. Fox News and talk radio have been reporting on the story starting a few days after the piece appeared in the Journal. But the rest of the media have continued to largely ignore this story. CNN’s “Reliable Sources” didn’t even mention it on its weekly Sunday show about the media, while Fox News’ “Media Buzz” did a full segment on it.

As a news story, this has had a fascinating evolution. It appears that The Daily Caller has led the way on coverage. They wrote about this survey back in October, and covered most of the details that comprise the story today. And then in December, they noted how the survey seemed to be going nowhere. Mark Levin commented on it several times on his radio show, but few others paid any attention to it.

In December, House of Representative members also decried this survey as reviving the Fairness Doctrine. Tom Wheeler, the recently installed FCC Chair—a true Obama believer and top Obama bundler—responded to Congressional criticism in December, saying during a hearing that “…what we did was, there is a study that has been proposed by a consulting firm that we were working with, and we put that out for public notice to exactly get the kind of input that you’re suggesting.”

Wheeler’s response has since evolved. On February 14 Wheeler responded to House criticism of the FCC study by writing that the regulatory agency will “adapt the study in response to these concerns and expect to complete this work in the next few weeks.” There is nothing to see here, he contended, saying, “The Commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters by way of this Research Design, any resulting study, or through any other means.”

Yet the study did intend to extend the probe into the newsrooms of print journalists, according to a Fox News’ Greta van Susteren panel and an FCC commissioner. The FCC has no jurisdiction over print media. “The survey is clearly written by somebody who’s never set foot in a newsroom. … They go into newspapers as well. The FCC doesn’t even regulate newspapers,” said Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post on Greta’s panel. Tumulty called the study and its proposed actions “completely clueless.” That’s like saying the IRS officials were merely “boneheaded” when they repeatedly targeted conservative organizations seeking tax-exempt status.

Van Susteren called the FCC’s proposals something different: so stupid that they could be seen as malevolent, “almost trying to shut up journalists.”

“What in the world is going on where somebody in our government thinks it’s a good idea to invade these different news rooms, when we’ve got a First Amendment, we’ve got freedom of the press, I mean who in his right mind?” she asked. “And why didn’t everybody—And maybe if one FCC commissioner was stupid enough, where were the other ones?”

In breaking ranks with his fellow FCC commissioners in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, Ajit Pai wrote, “But everyone should agree on this: The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.” He added, “Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission, where I am a commissioner, does not agree.”

He points to the survey as an example, and says that “The FCC says the study is merely an objective fact-finding mission (emphasis added). The results will inform a report that the FCC must submit to Congress every three years on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry.” But Pai calls that claim “peculiar.”

“How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry?” he writes. “And why does the [Critical Information Needs] study include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?”

When Pai was asked by Van Susteren about the origin of the idea, he said he didn’t know.

Clearly, something more nefarious is going on here, and the media shouldn’t play along. For the administration to think it’s okay to go into newsrooms, especially into newsrooms of newspapers, where they don’t have even a shred of authority, is outrageous. The question is, how will—and how should—newsrooms react to Big Brother coming in and asking such questions? Van Susteren and her panel from the Post, Washington Examiner, and The Hill suggested the media simply should not cooperate.

However, if this plan were to proceed in some manner, those under the FCC’s thumb—radio and television stations—may not have much choice but to play along. Their license renewals may be at stake. This reminds us of how the IRS went to organizations seeking 501(c)4 exemptions, and how the conservative and tea party groups were asked about their political and religious beliefs, for their tweets and Facebook pages, and other organizational data.

“This is an outrage disguised as a study,” noted Charles Krauthammer. “As if the IRS, and the EPA, and NLRB haven’t done enough damage,” said Krauthammer on Fox News’ “Special Report,” “the FCC now has to trample on what rights are remaining.”

Clearly, this administration includes intimidation and thought control as part of President Obama’s plan for “transforming America.” But of course, he knew nothing about this until he heard about it in the media. Jay Carney said, at his White House press briefing on Friday, “The FCC is an independent agency, so you’d have to talk to them for details.”

Many have suggested that this is Obama’s way of reinstituting a Fairness Doctrine by stealth means, since the long-time dream of Democrats to do it by legislation or direct regulation has failed. But I don’t quite see it that way. The Fairness Doctrine required measured, timed balance on the licensed airwaves, whether radio or TV. The Obama administration would prefer that every station and network be like NBC, or better yet, MSNBC—in total service to the Obama administration, and to a lesser extent, to the Democratic Party and the so-called progressive movement. They aren’t really interested in balance, or even diversity—if that diversity includes views critical of the administration.

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at View the complete archives from Roger Aronoff.


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