Editorial: FCC needs free speech lessons

Published Mar 9, 2014 at 12:01AM

The Federal Communications Commission may have had pure motives when it decided to study news operations in the United States with its “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” CIN for short, as part of an every-three-year report it must make to Congress.

We have to believe the commission did not think things through particularly carefully as plans were made.

The proposed study included questions about how broadcast news stations selected stories to cover and included its own list of the sorts of topics the commission thinks are important — the environment and economic opportunity, among others. It would have asked news providers to talk about their “news philosophy” and how they deliver critical information, as defined by the FCC, to their communities.

It got worse. Do editors reject ideas from reporters, the study asked. If so, why. And so on.

All this, mind you, in the country that put the right to make those decisions without government interference in the very first amendment to its constitution. Its guarantee of a free press is part of the larger amendment guaranteeing free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government.

If commissioners were unprepared for the criticism their plan drew, they shouldn’t have been. Nor should they have been surprised at the reaction of Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River.

Walden is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and chairman of the subcommittee on communications and technology, and he announced plans to introduce legislation to end the FCC’s study plans. Though that appears dead now, his office says he will keep an eye on the problem even as he continues to work to make the agency more transparent.

That Walden understands the First Amendment better than the FCC does, and that he was able to persuade every Republican on his subcommittee to join in a letter to the agency in December, asking that the study be canned, should come as no surprise, given his college degree in journalism and past ownership of Oregon radio stations. What is a surprise is the lack of understanding of the amendment displayed by the FCC.