A Friendly Visit From the FCC

Those friendly folks at the Federal Communications Commission are planning a visit to your local newsroom, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception they’ll receive. If they drop by here we’ll be tempted to greet them with a combination of the First and Second Amendments, but we worry they’ll be greeted cordially at the more respectable publications.
The visits are entirely voluntary and merely a matter of intellectual curiosity, we are assured, and intended only to gather helpful information about how the various media decide which stories to report. More specifically, they hope to find out about the “processes” radio and televisions stations use in making their editorial judgments and how often they provide the “critical information needs” of news consumers. It strikes us as chilling that the government now concerns itself with the thoughts underlying the perfectly legal and openly expressed opinions of the media, and has already reached its own conclusions about what information citizens critically need, and one wonders how “voluntary” an invitation can be when issued by the agency that grants a newsroom license to broadcast, but we are assured this is merely right-wing paranoia.
Such assurances would be more reassuring if the government hadn’t lately been using the Internal Revenue Service to harrass the administration’s political opponents, the Department of Justice hadn’t been treating reporters’ investigative journalism as a criminal conspiracy, the National Security Agency wasn’t snooping around Americans’ phone records, and the United States hadn’t recently dropped another 13 spots to 46th place on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom rankings. Our concerns do seem relegated to the conservative corners of the media, judging by the sources of the scant attention being paid to the FCC’s plans, but the quietude of the rest makes it all the more troubling.
The Fox New Network is on the story, possibly because they’re the ones whose reporters have treated as criminal co-conspirators and excluded from the White House news pool and routinely criticized by every level of the administration, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the radio talk shows have been paying some attention for obvious reasons of their own, but otherwise the story has gone largely unnoted. In our years of journalism we endured many a journalist’s self-righteous sermon about the obligation of the press to bravely resist any governmental interference, but that was mostly during Republican administrations, when nothing like the FCC’s current curiosity and the nation’s slide down the rankings of press freedom ever occurred, and at this moment of hope and change none of the over-the-air networks seem terribly concerned that their notions of the news consumers’ critical information needs will differ much from the government’s.
There’s little chance that the FCC will bother with such far-flung internet publications as this, but if they take a mind to we will save the taxpayers the cost of a visit. We select the stories we write about by a process of finding something that piques our interest or provides an opportunity for embittered satire, and we believe that Americans critically need to be informed that the government is getting too nosy and bossy, and that freedom of the press shall not be abridged.

— Bud Norman

Meeting the Press

By happenstance we spent much of Wednesday evening in the company of some veterans of the local news media, and not once did anyone mention the government’s latest assaults on their profession. It was a friendly social gathering, with the conversation mostly devoted to the pleasant weather we’ve been having lately and a good bit of personal gossip about colleagues and local notables who were not present, but the absence of any alarmed shop talk was conspicuous nonetheless.
More than 30 years in the news business have taught us that journalists are typically as self-interested as they are self-righteous, and they instinctively regard any perceived infringement of their occupational rights as a threat to democracy and civilization. There are valid reasons for this attitude, aside from how neatly it serves a journalist’s heroic self-image, and it has usually been a popular topic of conversation in journalistic circles. In past years news of the Department of Justice snooping through the Associated Press’ phone records, treating a cable news reporter’s efforts to question sources as a criminal conspiracy, and allegedly poking around in a network reporter’s computer, along with an administration’s longstanding disdain for an adversarial press, would have been topics of inexhaustible interest at a party such we as attended on Wednesday.
The obvious explanation for the noticeable disinterest in these outrages is that they have all occurred during the Obama administration, a cause much of the press has been passionately devoted to since it was first proposed, and we cannot think of anything more convincing. Other than ourselves, one radio guy, and one outsider who has never worked for any media, everyone present at the gathering had voted for Obama or would be embarrassed to admit they had not, and had we been rude enough to broach the subject of the recent bullying of the press we suspect they would have felt obliged to defend their man against any allegations of wrong-doing. The Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups for audits and harassment did come up briefly, with one reporter making a brief attempt to defend the practice before backing out of that quicksand, but the conversation quickly moved on the subject of a local celebrity’s wife’s recent weight gain.
This was in Wichita, where the conservative-to-liberal ratio was probably skewed rightward by several degrees relative to the nation at large, and most of the almighty Washington-New York-Los Angeles news media seem even more uncomfortable with the conversation. The editorialists at The New York Times have done some obligatory harrumphing about the administration’s treatment of the press, The Associated Press has been predictably peeved, there has been some rallying around at the usually hated Fox Network, and the administration’s spokespeople have lately been amusingly flustered by unaccustomed hard questions, but it has all been lacking in the outraged vigor of the recent past. Compared to the clamor that would have surely occurred if a Republican administration was responsible it has been rather quiet.
Conservatives have long pipe-dreamed about the possibility of the press turning on Obama, which would surely be a catastrophe for his presidency and an end to his legislative agenda, and the stark evidence of his hostility to a free press has fueled these hopes. A few hours and a couple of glasses of wine with a circle of reporters can dash these hopes, however, and the best that can be hoped for is that the press will be a little bit less adoring of the powers that be.

— Bud Norman