The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

March 7, 2014

Intrepid roosters run the FCC fox out of the henhouse

The dang Republicans and right-wing radio accomplished something that most Americans should appreciate; they kept the government out of newsrooms.

The Federal Communications Commission last week abandoned its plan to go into America’s newsrooms and inquire about the news editorial process. The goal was lofty. It came from the 2010 results of the Media Market Census, which reports ownership. According to documents on the FCC’s website, learning about the newsroom process would open ownership opportunities for women and minorities while ensuring that journalists meet the nation’s Critical Information Needs, or CINs.

The eight CINs are emergency, health, education, transportation, economic opportunities, environment, civic and political. Many journalists would argue they cover these stories every day and there’s no need for the government to get involved.

The study planned to do a content analysis to study actual stories presented in print, broadcast and online media outlets. Authors also planned to interview people in diverse communities to determine where they get their news and whether it meets their needs. The last piece of the puzzle was to interview newsroom managers and reporters to determine how and why they cover the news as they do.

It’s a good research idea that goes wrong once the information is handed to Uncle Sam. Generally, when the government gets involved in the private sector, it manages to muck up things pretty well. While making news is a bit like making sausage, it’s doubtful Uncle Charlie, the old Citizens Band radio nickname for the FCC, could do better. The most dangerous part of the equation is the FCC grants licenses to radio, TV and Internet providers. Who’s to say this information couldn’t be used to deny a license renewal?

That was exactly the cry on a Christian radio program I was listening to on the way home. The host said if the FCC gets a toehold on content, it could deny licenses to Christian radio stations. It urged listeners to sign an online petition. In the hour I listened, some 40,000 people signed the petition.

Even one of the FCC’s own commissioners was squeamish about the proposal. Commissioner Mike O’Rielly issued the following statement via the FCC’s website Feb. 26: “House and Senate Republicans, along with Commissioner Ajit Pai, have voiced their serious concerns about the Commission’s Critical Information Needs (CIN) study. While I was not at the Commission when the study was authorized, I share those concerns … If any value was ever to come from this particular exercise, that ship has sailed.”

Two days later, the FCC pulled up the anchor and returned to port when Pai released this statement via the FCC: “I am pleased that the FCC has canceled its Critical Information Needs study. In our country, the government does not tell the people what information they need. Instead, news outlets and the American public decide that for themselves. I look forward to working with my colleagues to identify and remove actual barriers to entry into the communications industry. This newsroom study was a distraction from that important goal.”

If the FCC wants to know what goes into the news-making process, commissioners should enroll in journalism school. There, they will learn no easy blueprint exists to determine news coverage. It’s a complicated system of balancing the pressures of profit, technology and individual reporters’ expertise against professional ethics and standards, public service and just plain doing what is right.

It’s not a perfect system, but it’s better than a government-run one. If the government controlled the news, the public wouldn’t know about the pitfalls of the Affordable Care Act, Edward Snowden, National Security Agency phone taps, drone surveillance, and the list goes on.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail: ynerissa@frontier.com.

© Nerissa Young 2014

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