Thursday, February 27, 2014

Comrade Barack

In December 2013 the world shook its collective heads as Russian President Vladimir Putin dissolved the State News Agency and replaced it with an outlet that will provide even friendlier coverage.  The new agency is reminiscent of Pravda, the official newspaper of Communist Russia.  Just this week Putin has replaced the longstanding head of Radio Russia with somebody who will not air dissenting voices.  Western media and devotees of freedom tsk-tsk over the crackdown, but largely shrug it off as it is expected of the Russian leader.  President Barack Obama’s administration took similar steps to control the U.S. media, provoking dissent at home.

In May 2013 the Federal Communications Commission (made up of 5 members, all chosen by the President and approved by the Senate, with only 3 members being of one party) issued a 78-page study by Social Solutions International that designed research to identify the critical information needs (CIN) of the American population.  The FCC decided it needed to find out what information Americans should get and how to get it to them.  A series of questions were proposed.  The FCC – which licenses and gives permission for news and media companies to operate – would survey the same news and media organizations (“voluntarily”) to find out:
  •          What is the news philosophy of the station?
  •          How do you define critical information that the community needs?
  •          Who decides which stories are covered?
  •        Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers (viewers, listeners, readers) that was rejected by management?

One imagines that with this information the FCC would either use its regulatory authority to change answers it didn’t like or would direct organizations to cover other news in another way.  It’s unclear, but chilling in its possibilities.

The study, like so many other things out of Washington, went largely unnoticed.  Only last week did one of the FCC Commissioners draw attention to the matter by warning the public in a Wall Street Journal editorial.  Republicans then rallied, and a week later the FCC pulled the study and cancelled the survey.  (For now.)

It’s refreshing that in America the idea of the Government coming into a journalistic enterprise and probe into its processes caused a lot of push-back.  That the study was approved and that the process went so far as to getting to the point of implementation is really unnerving.  It took 8 months from when the report came out, and, frankly, until the first station received the survey it’s doubtful this would have come to light without the courage of the FCC Commissioner. 

President Obama has shown his disdain for journalism and the First Amendment by attempting to criminalize it.  His Justice Department has filed charges against journalists alleging they are “traitors” and “aiding the enemy” by publishing and reporting on information.  They've also tracked reporter's conversations without warrants in a bid to control what is reported.
Glenn Greenwald, the former Guardian reporter who has reported extensively on NSA leaks by Edward Snowden will receive the Polk Award for excellence in journalism.  He said:  “I absolutely refuse to be exiled from my own country for the crime of doing journalism, and I’m gonna force the issue just on principle, and I think coming back for a ceremony like the Polk Award or other forms of journalistic awards would be a really good symbolic test to put the government in the position of having to arrest journalists who are coming back to the U.S. to receive awards for the journalism they’ve done.”

There is some comfort in seeing the FCC’s overreach quashed.  Less comfortable is knowing that they tried.  I'm certain they'll try again.

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