Does the government want to place monitors in newsrooms?

February 20, 2014

Lots of information gets bandied about on Facebook, where the line between fact and fiction is as blurry as a shaky selfie.

That's fine, of course, as long as news consumers take the time to investigate the many links shared by friends. If you've never heard of the site the link leads you to, or that video looks too good to be true, beware. Chances are good that twerking girl setting herself on fire is a staged video.

With this in mind, I was immediately suspicious when a Facebook friend shared a link claiming the Obama administration's planned to put government monitors in newsrooms. The link led to a site I'd never heard of called "D.C.'s Clothesline," which touts that it airs out America's dirty laundry. The site reported the Federal Communications Commission proposal "could turn every major news network and newspaper into little more than a state media mouthpiece."

If true, that certainly should alarm every lover of a free press and our democracy. However, the story on the site was written more in the style of propaganda than a news story, so I decided to investigate a little further.

A Google search showed a number of blogs writing about the issue and a link to the original source: a Wall Street Journal column by FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by Obama in 2012.

According to his column, "the FCC proposed an initiative to thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country." It planned a "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," which would send researchers to question reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to air.

The FCC says the study is "merely an objective fact-finding mission," Pai wrote. Those in the blogosphere used much more aggressive language, likening it to repressive regimes attempting Orwellian control and intimidation of the press.

I couldn't find any news coverage on the subject at all, so my quest for fair and balanced reporting was thwarted. Rush Limbaugh spent some time talking about the issue on his radio show Thursday, mentioning an article Feb. 12 in AdWeek that said the FCC had backed off on its plan to study newsroom editorial practices.

I asked the Associated Press bureau chief in Dallas whether the news service had reported this story. He said he hadn't seen any AP coverage either, but would check more. He offered a link to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Obviously, the First Amendment is near and dear to my heart. Every journalist I know would be vehemently opposed to any government control of the media. However, even after this research, I'm unclear on whether that was ever suggested.

For example, the FCC commissioner's column and other bloggers assert newspaper newsrooms would somehow be affected by the proposal, even though that federal agency's jurisdiction is limited to the public airwaves. Moreover, an FCC spokesman told CJR, “The Commission has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make."

My Facebook friend's original question seemed simple enough: What do you think of this? As it turns out, the answer depends on whether you see this all as fact, fiction, or an unhealthy hybrid I'll call "faction." The digital age can make it challenging to be an educated news consumer. We'll do our best to be your Advocate in this quest.

Saturday update: For the latest on the story, see this Los Angeles Times article: "FCC suspends study that sought information on newsroom operations"