A new chapter in the book on paranoid politics started two weeks ago with a Wall Street Journal op-ed. The piece was written by Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, who warned that the federal government may soon begin “pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.” Pai added that the FCC “plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run.”
It took a few days, but eventually the warning caused quite a freak out with Glenn Beck, World Net Daily, the religious right movement, and Fox News. The breathless reports raised the specter of nefarious government “monitors” in newsrooms, which sounded quite unpleasant.
What in the world are they talking about? What should you say to your crazy uncle who watches Fox all day who will soon email you about this if he hasn’t already? The truth is actually quite dull, but keep reading because there’s a punch line coming up.
Kevin Drum summarized the backstory nicely.
The latest example requires a bit of background. The FCC, as you may know, is required by law to be concerned about community needs and whether broadcasters are meeting them. They don’t actually care about this as much as they used to, but the law’s the law, and they still care. So two years ago, while they were prepping their “Section 257 Report” to Congress, they commissioned USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to produce a literature review of existing research about “the critical information needs of the American public and the barriers to participation in the communications industry that might limit the extent to which critical needs are met.”Wait! Don’t fall asleep yet. It gets better.Anyway, this is every bit as much of a snooze fest as it sounds like, and no one cared at the time. Nonetheless, the good folks at USC duly convened “a multi-disciplinary team of communication experts, journalists, legal scholars, and social scientists” and produced the requested review. Again, nobody cared. In September 2012, the FCC took the next step, contracting with Social Sciences International to “design a research model that would provide the Commission with a tool for understanding access to and barriers in providing critical information needs in diverse American communities.” Yet again, no one cared.
I imagine stuff like this makes for a compelling journalism class, but in general, almost no one outside the FCC pays any attention to this stuff. It’s why, as the bureaucratic process unfolded, it caused no controversy whatsoever.
That is, until two weeks ago.
Some House Republicans got involved, warning the FCC to stay out of newsrooms. The American Center for Law and Justice, a far-right legal group started by TV preacher Pat Robertson, started telling social conservatives, “Now we see the heavy hand of the Obama administration poised to interfere with the First Amendment rights of journalists.” The White House, the group added, intends to “put monitors in the newsrooms of every major media outlet in the country.”
None of this is true. None of it is even close to true. But if you rely on conservative media, the politics of paranoia was in full force last week over this one.
And in response to the uproar, based on largely nothing, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, very likely caught off guard by the controversy that came out of nowhere, scrambled. “By law, the FCC must study the ability of entrepreneurs and small business to compete in the media marketplace. The Commission does not and will not interfere in newsrooms or editorial decision making, FCC spokesperson Shannon Gilson told me last week. “Any suggestion the Commission intends to regulate the speech of news media is false.”
By Friday, the FCC had given up on the study altogether.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is scrapping a study of media organizations that had riled up opponents concerned that it would impinge upon freedom of the press. […]In an announcement that can be found on the FCC website, the agency is changing directions: “To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, S.C. pilot study. The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final. Any subsequent market studies conducted by the FCC, if determined necessary, will not seek participation from or include questions for media owners, news directors or reporters.”
The right’s creative paranoia, in other words, is being rewarded.