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Op-ed Placement

The FCC’s campaign of intimidation

Originally Published in The Daily Caller on 2/26/14.

Despite repeated promises of transparency and openness, the Obama administration has been marked by an overt hostility to unfriendly media. Reporters have been denied access to official White House events, photographers have been prevented from taking photographs, and the Justice Department was caught spying on Fox News reporter James Rosen.

It’s surprising to see such a thin skin from the most powerful man in the world, especially considering that a majority of the country’s mainstream news outlets have been overwhelmingly supportive of the Obama agenda.

But this is not enough for a president who feels the need to recruit messaging squads to police the narrative of the Affordable Care Act. Support must be unanimous, and dissent — if it cannot be persuaded — must at least be silenced.

The latest attempt to keep national media on message comes from an FCC study that would have put federal regulators in the offices of newsrooms across the country. The stated purpose of the study was to “identify and understand the critical information needs of the American public, with special emphasis on vulnerable-disadvantaged populations.” If that sounds unnecessary, it’s probably because the actual motivation has more to do with monitoring how news is being reported with respect to the administration’s policies.

The FCC’s elaboration on this purpose was even more troubling. The agency says they want “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 CIN’s[critical information needs] and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.”

Did you catch that part about bias? Given the administration’s history with the press, what are the odds that the author had MSNBC or the New York Times in mind when writing that line?

After strong backlash from conservatives over the overt assault on the freedom of the press, the FCC backed down. A spokeswoman for the agency announced that the study will not take place — at least not yet. There are still rumblings of a new study design in the works, so advocates for journalistic liberty shouldn’t rest easy just yet.

The fact that a study of this nature was even being considered by a government agency is deeply worrying for the state of our Republic. If history is any guide, this will not be the end of the story. In the past, public outcry only drives federal agencies to be more subtle in their power grabs. Most recently, we have seen this in the fight against Net Neutrality. When the policy was struck down by the courts, the FCC (again) immediately started to pursue other options to achieve the same results. Regulators are relentless in their lust for power and control.

If there is anything to be learned from the IRS targeting scandal, in which the activities of conservative and tea party groups were systematically suppressed in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, it’s that supposedly independent regulatory agencies are not above abusing their powers for the benefit of their bosses.

There is a reason that the founding fathers singled out freedom of the press as the first article in the Bill of Rights. A politically independent media is crucial to a free society, with the ability to keep citizens informed about government activities being the first line of defense against a too-powerful state. The abridgment of this freedom does not require overt demands or explicit threats. The mere presence of government officials asking probing questions about journalistic methods is tantamount to intimidation.

Since the dark days of the Fairness Doctrine, those on the political left have been searching for ways to censor conservative media content, and there is no doubt that they will try to do so again. Progressives cannot win on facts, so they rely on bullying and intimidation to silence opposition instead. It is vital to the defense of liberty that we all keep a close watch on the FCC, to ensure that it not be allowed to insert itself into the journalistic process.