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OPINION - Over my shoulder

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) – Imagine the newsroom at a newspaper, TV or radio station. Somewhere in the corner is a government agent. He (or she) roams the halls, randomly looking over the shoulders of reporters. A few times a day, this person also talks to the News Director or Assignment Editor. Questions are asked. “What story are you working on?” “Who decided that would be covered?” Before the evening newscast, more questions. “What’s the lead story tonight?” “Who chose it?” “Why is this story being put ahead of this story?”

Any credible reporter knows there’s only one correct answer: “None of your business.” The best newspeople would throw in a few expletives for good measure.

The scenario sounds like a scene out of the military-run radio station in Good Morning Vietnam, where all newscasts that reached our soldiers needed to be reviewed by military censors. Otherwise government-over-the-shoulder-or-reporters sounds like the stuff of banana republic.

Yet this is what the FCC was planning to do in Charleston, South Carolina. It was part of a program called Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs. It’s a pilot program to determine why some news stories get covered and others don’t. Government researchers would literally be in the newsrooms and over reporters’ shoulders.

The FEDs say participation is voluntary. Yes and no. Broadcasters are regulated by the FCC, which reviews the licenses of every TV and radio station every eight years. A “request” from the government agency that controls your very existence is not considered voluntary by the recipient. They’re generally greeted with fear.

There are many problems with the initiative, starting with a basic lack of understanding of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press. What the FCC proposes to study – which stories are in newscasts – is specifically outside the bounds of what the government can regulate. Yet the FCC has already identified topics that they consider to be ‘Critical Information Needs’ that should be covered: the environment, health, economic opportunities, news geared towards women, rural populations and minorities. The government overlooks that, via the internet, we're at an all-time-high for specifically tailored news in all of those areas. The FCC’s white paper on the study says investigators will look for news bias, and may even ask reporters if they ever pitched stories to their managers that were rejected for coverage.

The FCC even proposes scrutiny of newspapers under this study. The commission, which has never regulated newspaper content until now, says that newspaper content on the internet falls under their prevue.

Radio and TV station owners are, as a group, experts on their First Amendment rights. Even though they are licenses, the FCC does not control what is said on their airwaves except in the narrow area of indecency. License holders, en masse, should refuse to participate in this study.

So far, government researchers haven’t showed up in Charleston. Three days ago, the study’s framework was revised . There’s now a petition against the study from several media groups. The topic has received coverage in the trade papers, and was reported on Fox News earlier this week. It’s possible the entire bad idea will be shelved. Still, this is revealing about the level of overreach government bureaucrats can dream up.

As for myself: I’m “working press” at my job every day. I’d refuse to answer government questions about my newscasts. And I’d refuse to work in a newsroom where a government monitor was present.

Chris Conley
2.20.14

Image:The Washington Times newsroom by David All via Wikicommons.com