Committee Continues Fight to Keep Big Brother Out of Nation’s Newsrooms

February 21, 2014

Energy and Commerce Committee leaders first sounded the alarm last December on the Federal Communications Commission’s intention to conduct a study in newsrooms across the country. Despite the ongoing concern, Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler last week responded to the committee’s December 10, 2013, letter, reiterating that the “Critical Information Needs” (CIN) study, with slight modifications, would move forward. Without scrapping the study, however, there is no evidence that Constitutionally guaranteed First Amendment protections will be left in place. Energy and Commerce Committee Vice Chairman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) took to the airwaves to discuss this breach of the public trust and its implications for the freedom of the press. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who joined committee Republicans in raising the issue with a Wall Street Journal column last week, appeared on Fox News’ On the Record with Greta Van Susteren just prior to Rep. Ellmers.


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February 20, 2014

Byron York: New Obama initiative tramples First Amendment protections

The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…" But under the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission is planning to send government contractors into the nation's newsrooms to determine whether journalists are producing articles, television reports, Internet content, and commentary that meets the public's "critical information needs." Those "needs" will be defined by the administration, and news outlets that do not comply with the government's standards could face an uncertain future. It's hard to imagine a project more at odds with the First Amendment.

The initiative, known around the agency as "the CIN Study" (pronounced "sin"), is a bit of a mystery even to insiders. "This has never been put to an FCC vote, it was just announced," says Ajit Pai, one of the FCC's five commissioners (and one of its two Republicans). "I've never had any input into the process," adds Pai, who brought the story to the public's attention in a Wall Street Journal column last week. …

The study identified eight "critical needs": information about emergencies and risks; health and welfare; education; transportation; economic opportunities; the environment; civic information; and political information.

It's not difficult to see those topics quickly becoming vehicles for political intimidation. In fact, it's difficult to imagine that they wouldn't. For example, might the FCC standards that journalists must meet on the environment look something like the Obama administration's environmental agenda? Might standards on economic opportunity resemble the president's inequality agenda? The same could hold true for the categories of health and welfare and "civic information" -- and pretty much everything else.

"An enterprising regulator could run wild with a lot of these topics," says Pai. "The implicit message to the newsroom is they need to start covering these eight categories in a certain way or otherwise the FCC will go after them." …

Questioning about the CIN Study began last December, when the four top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the FCC to justify the project. "The Commission has no business probing the news media's editorial judgment and expertise," the GOP lawmakers wrote, "nor does it have any business in prescribing a set diet of 'critical information.'"

If the FCC goes forward, it's not clear what will happen to news organizations that fall short of the new government standards. Perhaps they will be disciplined. Or perhaps the very threat of investigating their methods will nudge them into compliance with the administration's journalistic agenda. What is sure is that it will be a gross violation of constitutional rights.

To read the full column, click here.