- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Obama administration is pushing forward with a Federal Communications Commission project that would send government researchers into newsrooms across the country — and First Amendment advocates want to know why.

The touted purpose of the plan is to “identify and understand the critical information needs of the American public, with special emphasis on vulnerable-disadvantaged populations,” the FCC said, Fox News reported.

But at least one FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal that suggested the notion was more aimed at giving government entities the ability to “grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run.”

Mr. Pai continued: “Everyone should agree on this: The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.”

First Amendment and government watchdog organizations were quick to agree.

“The FCC seems unable to keep its hands off the news media for any extended period of time,” said Jeffrey Eisenach, a visiting scholar with The American Enterprise Institute, to Fox News. “It’s the same generic concern of needing a news nanny to make sure we’re all well informed.”

Among the questions to be studied: How news organizations select stories, and frequency with which broadcast outlets report on “critical information needs,” Fox News reported.

The surveys will be voluntary — but Mr. Pai said the definition of voluntary can be rather subjective.

“Participation is voluntary — in theory,” he wrote, in his op-ed to the Wall Street Journal. “[But] the FCC’s queries may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore. They would be out of business without an FCC license.”

The project is reportedly due to kick off this spring in Columbia, S.C.

“This is an extremely troubling and dangerous development that represents the latest in an ongoing assault on the Constitution by the Obama administration,” said Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, in Fox News. “The federal government has no place attempting to control the media, using the unconstitutional actions of repressive regimes to squelch free speech.”