What to make of the recently scuttled FCC study of newsrooms? Gabriel Rossman argues that the FCC’s proposed study of the story selection by media outlets could usefully inform future FCC decisions to deregulate the communications industry. Meanwhile, Jesse Walker argues that the proposed study is a “disturbing” sign of the technocratic mentality of the FCC, but not a sign that the agency was planning to use the study of story selection to intimidate media outlets the FCC licenses. Walker writes that the FCC showed a “bias toward government planning” but not partisanship. I think there is a case to be made that Rossman is right, but I ultimately side with Byron York and his concerns. A technocratic view of what the public needs to know is problematic enough, but it is worse when the technocrats are largely on the same side in contemporary political controversies. At that point, the distinction between technocratic attitudes and partisan political goals tend to blur.
Let’s look at one of the “critical information needs” identified by the FCC (in conjunction with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Communication and Democracy): coverage of the environment. Of course, there is nothing necessarily left-wing in concern about environmental policy. The FCC could be looking to see if reporters and news directors were devoting sufficient attention to conservative proposals for adjusting to climate change.
There is also nothing inherently ideological in FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s call that “we leave no American behind when it comes to meeting the information needs of those in varied and vibrant communities of our nation.” It would be very informative to have a deep ethnographic examination of the abortion policy preferences of journalists, editors and news directors. It would then be helpful to examine how those same journalists, editors, and news directors explained in detail how their beliefs about abortion influenced their coverage of the Gosnell murders and the filibuster by Wendy Davis. Such a study might teach us whether pro-lifers are a vibrant community that is being left behind.
Theoretically such “critical information needs” could be nonpartisan, but to claim that they would work out that way is simply naive.When journalists were to be asked about their coverage of the environment, nobody was going to have been thinking about Jim Manzi’s proposed alternatives to carbon taxation. Pro-lifers were not going to be recognized as a vibrant and varied American community. Everybody would know what answers the Mignon Clyburn wanted.
Imagine if, under President Rick Perry, an FCC chaired by a scion of the Michele Bachmann family decided to ask journalists about whether the media were meeting the public’s critical information needs regarding economic liberty. This critical information need was developed in conjunction with the Media Research Center and the American Enterprise Institute.
Conservatives Liberals might say that economic liberty could mean “liberation” from work through increased government subsidies.*That would all be nonsense too. “Mainstream” journalists would recognize a conjunction of right-leaning institutions and personalities pushing their priorities. Even if it never resulted in outright censorship, everyone (even those who chose defiance) would know what the FCC wanted. Even under a conservative president, the federal bureaucracy still would not be right-leaning and so could be counted on to cushion the threat from any such “conservative” FCC study. Pro-choice news editors would have less worry that that there was a right-wing version of Lois Lerner ready to use her power to the maximum extent in order to harass the political opposition.
Technocracy in our time is also a collection of attitudes, institutions and personalities that sympathize overwhelmingly with our left-of-center political coalitions. That means that the politics of technocracy carry the constant risk of becoming party politics.
* Updated to correct for using the wrong word.