Think Tank Express: News content targeted by the FCC


FCC fine against Roanoke TV station could invite special-interest groups to influence newsroom content 

As you recall, the FCC proposed a fine of $325,000 against WDBJ in Roanoke, Va. last March after inadvertently showing a three-second video clip of a porn site with male genitalia during a 2012 news story about nearby Cave Springs, Va.’s effort to prevent a former porn star from joining its volunteer fire department.

WDBJ is owned by Schurz Communications, who also owns CBS affiliate WSBT in South Bend, Ind. and the South Bend Tribune newspaper. Schurz is based in the north-central Indiana city.

On Tuesday, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Radio-Television Digital News Association joined WDBJ in filing briefs against the fine, which the CBS affiliate is fighting. According to Broadcasting and Cable, the NAB and RTDNA are fighting against the fine on First Amendment grounds:

“From the broader industry perspective, the NAL [Notice of Liability] is disquieting because it improperly intrudes into broadcasters’ editorial discretion. In particular, the extraordinarily punitive nature of the fine and the accompanying discussion in the NAL raise the specter that the Commission’s subjective view of the merit of WDBJ’s underlying news story drove the unprecedented decision here. As such, the FCC’s action is a direct affront to First Amendment values that undoubtedly will further chill broadcast speech.”

Indeed, the fine – the first levied against a single TV station since the “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl over a decade ago – is quite steep. This action by the FCC – an government agency who only rivals the Illinois legislature for partisan dysfunction and for being useless and ineffective – is disgusting and chilling. This does nothing but invite government intrusion into the newsroom and trounces upon the First Amendment right of the freedom of the press.

Rev. Michael Pflager (Chicago Sun-Times)
Rev. Michael Pflager (Chicago Sun-Times)

Even worse, this decision could give politicians and special-interest groups more influence over newsroom content. It’s nothing but an open invitation for the likes of the Parents Television Council (whose praised the FCC ruling) and the Rev. Michael Pflager, if the controversy involving the latter over the film Chiraq is any indication (whether he’s for or against the movie doesn’t matter. ) In other words, if you’re sick of Plager being all over the news media now…

Or even worse, law enforcement. If you recall, Chicago Police detained several a journalist and a cameraman outside a hospital several years ago after covering a shooting. Outside the hospital where the victim was rushed, a Chicago Police officer stupidly threatened to terminate journalists’ right to free press.

During the riots in Ferguson, Mo. last year, police detained several journalists and threatened several news crews.

If the FCC upholds this ruling, our hope is WDBJ and the trade groups take this to court – even the Supreme Court if need be. WDBJ handled the incident internally (with the departure of the news director and those involved in the incident) and nothing more needs to be done. There is too much at stake to let the likes of the PTC, Rev. Pflager, and law enforcement to control content coming out of newsrooms. This is something you expect to see in North Korea, not in the United States of America.