The better question is this — why should the FCC care what editors at TV stations and especially newspapers are thinking?  More than a week ago, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai blew the whistle on the commission’s proposed study of editorial bias in news rooms, even though the FCC has no jurisdiction on broadcast news content, and no jurisdiction whatsoever on newspapers. Fox News began covering this yesterday:

Howard Kurtz writes today that the FCC doesn’t belong in the newsroom anywhere:

I know that television stations are licensed in the public interest. It’s fair for the FCC to examine how much news a station offers, as opposed to lucrative game shows and syndicated reruns. But the content of that news ought to be off-limits.

The Fairness Doctrine, which once required TV and radio stations to offer equal time for opposing points of view, is no more, and good riddance (since it discouraged stations from taking a stand on much of anything). The Obama administration swears it’s not coming back.

How, then, to explain this incursion into the substance of journalism, which seems utterly at odds with the notion of a free and unfettered press?

Now some of the commentary about this is overheated, with talk of an FCC “thought police” and so on. The effort is beginning in a single city. But already there are signs that the commission is backing off.

Adweek reports that “controversial” sections of the study will be “revisited” under new chairman Tom Wheeler. An FCC official told the publication that the agency “has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make. We’re closely reviewing the proposed research design to determine if an alternative approach is merited.”

The FCC should keep its alternative approaches to itself, as even the posing of these questions carries an intimidation factor. The government has no business meddling in how journalism is practiced. And if George W. Bush’s FCC had tried this, it would be a front-page story.

Just how overheated is that kind of talk, though? It’s difficult to determine any other reason for the FCC to take an interest in editorial decisions unless it wants to intervene in that process. It’s not all that outrageous to believe that the only reason a federal agency wants to conduct a study of an area over which it has no authority or jurisdiction is to craft an argument to get that authority and jurisdiction, especially if it can claim a crisis exists. And the only reason why the government would want to control editorial choice is to make sure it benefits government.

The study design is available online, by the way, and it’s impressive for the depth in which the FCC intends to probe editorial choice. The purpose of the study, according to its authors, is “to identify and understand the critical information needs (CINs) of the American public (with special emphasis on
vulnerable/disadvantaged populations).” This assumes that the American public can’t identify their own “CINs” and find ways to service them in a historically-diverse and dynamic media environment, of course, which is flatly laughable.

The study would involve interviews at all kinds of outlets — newspapers and Internet included, even though they are outside of FCC jurisdiction — in order to determine whether the FCC sees a CIN crisis. What are the purposes of the interviews with media owners, editors, reporters, and others?

The purpose of these interviews is to ascertain the process by which stories are selected, station priorities (for content, production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias, perceived percent of news dedicated to each of the eight CINs, and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.

The FCC will judge media outlets individually and in groups based on their own perception of critical “CINs” rather than allow consumers to figure that out for themselves.  One of these is “employment information”:

The Critical Review of the Literature established a set of necessary thresholds in each of the eight categories, many of which have both an objective and individual component. For example, in a given community, are there channels for emergency communication that can reach the entire population? If not, who is excluded, for what reasons, under what conditions? Is there a sufficiently robust market in employment information, in print, online or other?

Who determined that “employment information” was one of the Big Eight CINs in the first place? What kind of “employment information” interests the FCC? We have want ads, Monster.com, Craigslist, and most employers have websites with hiring needs listings. If companies want to hire, they’ll determine their own CINs, and people who need jobs will find them. Or does the FCC want to go after coverage of employment information — like, say, jobless rates, workforce participation, and the like?

The answers show just how far outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction this goes. Here are the questions for station owners and HR:

• What is the news philosophy of the station?
• Who is your target audience?
• How do you define critical information that the community needs?
• How do you ensure the community gets this critical information?
• How much does community input influence news coverage decisions?
• What are the demographics of the news management staff (HR)?
• What are the demographics of the on air staff (HR)?
• What are the demographics of the news production staff (HR)?

Not one of these questions fall within the aegis of the FCC, except arguably the community reception of information — and that only for broadcasters. The questions get more intrusive for editors and mid-level managers:

• What is the news philosophy of the station?
• Who else in your market provides news?
• Who are your main competitors?
• How much news does your station (stations) air every day?
• Is the news produced in-house or is it provided by an outside source?
• Do you employ news people?
• How many reporters and editors do you employ?
• Do you have any reporters or editors assigned to topic “beats”? If so how many and what
are the beats?
• Who decides which stories are covered?
• How much influence do reporters and anchors have in deciding which stories to cover?
• How much does community input influence news coverage decisions?
• How do you define critical information that the community needs?
• How do you ensure the community gets this critical information?

When one looks at the actual study commissioned by the FCC, it’s difficult to laugh off the “thought police” aspects of it. That’s especially true with the surfeit of demographic questions that belong more to the EEOC’s jurisdiction, and the stated focus of “perceived responsiveness to underserved populations,” in an era of exploding choice and demographic targeting by media. One can see the “crisis” the FCC will want to solve a mile off.  It’s pretty obvious what the FCC is thinking.

The Anchoress clarifies matters for Kurtz:

“What are they thinking?” Mr. Kurtz, it’s pretty obvious; they’re thinking no one in the mainstream press has asked them a difficult or challenging question in 7 years, so why would they start now.

  • They’re thinking an obsequious press that couldn’t be bothered to sustain outrage over intrusions into its own phone and internet records won’t have a problem with the government parking itself into the newsroom.
  • They’re thinking that if the mainstream press could forgive them for considering espionage charges against a member of the press — for doing what reporters are supposed to do — and then re-commence their habitual boot-licking, there is no real risk of media folk suddenly calling out a “red line”, or even being able to identify one.
  • They’re figuring that with this president, the mainstream media has no idea what “a bridge too far” might mean. Nor, “abuse of power”; nor “cover-up”; nor “mendacity”,“incompetence”“ineptitude” or “constitutional illiteracy.”
  • They know that half the people in the newsroom are either married or to (or social buddies with) influential members of this government, and that everyone is all comfy and nicely settled in for the revolution.
  • They know that the press willfully surrendered its own freedoms some time ago, in the interests of ideology, and so they really won’t mind a little editorial supervision from the masters:

. . .we no longer need wonder why the mainstream media seems unconcerned about possible attacks on our first amendment rights to freedom of religion and the exercise thereof. They have already cheerfully, willfully surrendered the freedom of the press to the altar of the preferred narrative. People willing to dissolve their own freedoms so cheaply have no interest in anyone else’s freedom, either.

  • They know that if they like their newsroom, they can keep their newsroom, once it has been correctly updated. A Mad Man might sell the scheme as Prexy-Clean. Journalism “new and improved with powerful cleansing agents!”

I hope that helps, Mr. Kurtz.

They’re thinking that no one’s paying any attention. And so far, for the most part, they’ve been correct.

Update: I fixed a formatting error in The Anchoress’ excerpt. Also, my friend Warner Todd Huston sent up the first signal flare on this issue in November, so be sure to read that post, too.