- - Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has bestirred the sleeping media to the threat to life as we know it. The FCC wants to embed government researchers on newsroom floors to track how newspapers, radio and television stations select stories and cover the news.

They’ll be on a hunt for signs of bias. Someone should tell these worthies that the First Amendment provides a wall of separation between newsrooms and the state.

“The core goal of the media market census,” the FCC proposes, “is to determine whether and how FCC-regulated and related media construct news and public affairs to provide for [critical information needs] across different communities.”

The basis of the study is the belief that newspapers and broadcasters are ignoring “underserved populations” in the way events are selected for coverage. The government proposes to analyze the content of newspaper, broadcast and Internet programming and conduct interviews with “local neighborhoods” to determine whether “critical information needs,” as defined by government, are met.

The market already measures these needs through ratings, sales figures and Internet traffic. News organizations that don’t serve the public disappear.

With thousands of choices of TV channels to watch, Internet sites to read and radio stations to listen to, the government sees a problem that isn’t there. Americans have never had such a wealth of information choices at their fingertips. The public may be suffering from news glut.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, calls this FCC proposal an effort to “grill reporters, editors and station owners” about how they decide what’s news.

This puts the government in a position to influence content, he writes in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, since the Federal Communications Commission can bully organizations that don’t cooperate by threatening broadcast licenses. It’s not clear what the government has in mind for newspapers.

Liberals have tried to bring back the “fairness doctrine” to tilt coverage, or cited media ownership rules as evidence that Rupert Murdoch owns too many television stations, that he should sell some of them in the name of “diversity.”

Democrats dream of returning to the days of the nightly news broadcasts when the only choices were ABC, CBS and NBC.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, who has oversight over the FCC, wants to stop this nonsense now. “It is wrong,” he wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, “it is unconstitutional, and we urge you to put a stop to this most recent attempt to engage the FCC as the ‘news police.’”

Bias is in the eyes of the beholder, and consumers are best equipped to judge which outlets serve their needs. It’s none of the government’s business how newspapermen (the noun includes both male and female) and television journalists do their jobs. The government can get the news when everybody else does.