The Federal Communications Commission plans on studying the way newspapers decide what topics to cover. Or, as many right-leaning news sites have posited, the Obama administration is going to elbow its way into newsrooms. The fear has spread to the House — according to The Hill, the House Energy and Commerce committee wrote the the FCC late last year to voice their concerns over the government surveilling the media. FCC chair Tom Wheeler replied that it "has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters." But once a theory's been thought, there's no stopping it.
What is this study?
The law requires the FCC to conduct studies on the telecommunications industry, and the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs would, according to a letter Wheeler sent to Rep. Fred Upton, seek "to identify whether potential market barriers exist and, if so, whether those barriers affect diversity of media voices." This spring, the FCC would ask eight stations in Columbia, South Carolina about their news philosophies.
Why are people so upset?
Ajit Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner, really got people worried with a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on February 10. Pai argued that the study will "thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country." And although cooperation is voluntary, "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." Basically, he argues the government will force newsrooms to comply, and strong arm them IRS-style if they don't.
And while the lamestream media remains quiet on this issue, conservative blogs are on it, and the concern reached a fever pitch on Thursday. The Right Scoop called it "chilling," and was very skeptical of the government's intentions. "The possibility of the FCC even suggesting topics for media news coverage is chilling," noted PJ Media. "The title of this Big Brother-ish effort by the Federal Communications Commission sounds innocuous enough," Howard Kurtz wrote at Fox News, "but it’s a Trojan horse that puts federal officials in the newsroom, precisely where they shouldn’t be."
The conservative American Center for Law and Justice has already started a petition to fight this study. “Now we see the heavy hand of the Obama administration poised to interfere with the First Amendment rights of journalists,” the group's chief counsel, Jay Sekulow, told The Blaze.
Is this actually a conspiracy theory?
The idea that the government is going to tell people newsrooms what to write about seems a little paranoid, but given the NSA's spying, we don't blame people for being concerned.
However, there are two things at play here. The FCC says it will also be studying “perceived station bias," which the right may (does) see as a witch hunt against stations that aren't favorable to the government. Basically, there's a reason Fox News has covered this multiple times in the last 24 hours — it thinks Obama's gunning for the network. There's also concern that the FCC is trying to revive the Fairness Doctrine, a law that required both stations to give equal time to both sides of an issue.
Wheeler has said that the FCC is open to comments and may change the parameters of the study. Still, the FCC should have anticipated a backlash. Conservatives who fear the Obama administration is using the government to punish them were bound to be upset with this, given the recent IRS/Tea Party controversy and the NSA's phone tapping. However, the study, which hasn't been finalized, also hasn't taken place yet. It's a little too early to tell how this will go.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.