“Everyone talks about the weather,” Mark Twain (apocryphally) observed, “but nobody does anything about it.” To some extent, the same is true about editorial bias. People have complained about bias in news coverage for decades, but only recently have the barriers to market entry been so low as to allow critics to build their own platforms to do anything about it. That frustration with editorial bias led in large part to the explosion of the blogosphere, which forced news outlets to deal substantively with the criticisms they created with their editorial biases.
That is the free-market approach. Should there be a regulatory approach to editorial bias — or is that just an opportunity for government-controlled news? FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai warns that his agency has begun exploring those ends:
But everyone should agree on this: The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.
Unfortunately, the Federal Communications Commission, where I am a commissioner, does not agree. Last May the FCC proposed an initiative to thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country. With its “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” or CIN, the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run. A field test in Columbia, S.C., is scheduled to begin this spring.
The purpose of the CIN, according to the FCC, is to ferret out information from television and radio broadcasters about “the process by which stories are selected” and how often stations cover “critical information needs,” along with “perceived station bias” and “perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.”
Pai also warns that this will be explicitly political, both in substance and in process:
The FCC also wants to wade into office politics. One question for reporters is: “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?” Follow-up questions ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions.
Participation in the Critical Information Needs study is voluntary—in theory. Unlike the opinion surveys that Americans see on a daily basis and either answer or not, as they wish, the FCC’s queries may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore. They would be out of business without an FCC license, which must be renewed every eight years.
First, let’s muse on that question for a moment. Has there ever been a reporter who hasn’t had a story pitch rejected by his editors? Heck, I’ve even had that experience. Even while acknowledging the reality and problem of political biases, editors and management exist to marshal finite resources for the best possible use. This is basically begging the question of perceived bias and the need for intervention by taking a universal experience and making it into something suspicious, if not sinister.
This is a problem, though, that is explicitly tied to the First Amendment, and should be outside of the FCC’s purview. The agency exists to regulate the use of broadcast frequencies to keep those bands viable for commercial (and amateur) use, and not to impose mandates for the substance of the broadcasts. News outlets are free to adopt whatever points of view they like without fear of government intervention. If people don’t like those outlets, they can give their business to others in a free-market environment.
The most dysfunctional of these markets is the city newspaper business, where one daily usually dominates if not occupies the entire market. The FCC doesn’t regulate newspapers … at least not yet, but the study includes newspapers for some reason anyway. Why would the FCC be looking outside of its mandate like that?
The FCC claims that its political inquisitiveness is merely an attempt to quantify the barriers to market for entrepreneurs, but Pai rejects that. Editorial bias is not in any shape or form a barrier to market entry. This is one effort to which Congress should demand an immediate end.