First it was the Federal Trade Commission with its December seminar on “How will journalism survive the Internet age?” Now, along comes the Federal Communications Commission with a new Web site and associated activities organized around the theme of “The future of media and the information needs of communities in a digital age.”
The focus of both agencies’ initiatives is what government can do to “help” traditional print and broadcast media compete in the Internet era. Thus, it’s federal bureaucrats’ bid to see who will regulate what’s reported about government and how. After 220 years of freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment, America’s independent press could be about to get an offer somebody thinks it can’t refuse.
The offer will be dressed up, of course, as a product of the bureaucrats’ sincere concern for the survival of the mainstream media, preservation of high-quality journalism, and insuring that “the news and informational needs of diverse communities” are fully met. But no matter how the wolf dresses up his offer, Li’l Red Riding Hood knows better than to take it.
Unfortunately, when it comes to understanding where these offers of official help inevitably lead, some of today’s journalistic leaders aren’t as savvy as Li’l Red Riding Hood. So herewith is a refresher course in why the Founders banned Congress from making any law concerning freedom of the press.
Prior to the American experience, the press was entirely a creature of government in old Europe, so independent reporting about government could and often did get people killed, usually in the most grotesque ways. Subjects knew only what their rulers wanted them to know.
In 1662, for example, the British Parliament approved “an Act for Preventing the Frequent Abuses in Printing Seditious, Treasonable and Unlicensed Books and Pamphlets and for Regulating Printing and Printing Presses.” (Pamphlets were often the newspapers of that era.) The act regulated what could be printed, even to the minute details of the numbers and training of apprentices, and extended Parliament’s censorship throughout Britain and “any other of His Majesties Dominions or in the parts beyond the seas.” Fines and imprisonments were provided for first and second offenses. A third offense judged treasonous meant a trip to the chopping block or the stake.
What the FTC and FCC bureaucrats propose is a marked step away from the independent press guaranteed by the First Amendment — one able to speak truth to power — toward the press becoming a mere mouthpiece of those in power.
Surely liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, can unite to end this dangerous nonsense in the federal bureaucracy.