Prepackaged ‘news’ no business of FCC

Tibor Machan Syndicated columnist

It looks like some media outlets are making use of prepackaged “news” produced by the state department and various corporations. The Center for Media and Democracy, a left-wing media watch group, did a study in which it found that “at least 77 television stations were making use of these faux news broadcasts, known as Video News Releases (VNRs).” Moreover, the organization reported, “Not one told viewers who had produced them.”

It is a demonstration of the merits of a free marketplace in the media to see the Center of Media and Democracy come forth with its finding. That is just what should happen when malfeasance occurs in the marketplace — other agents in the free market, of whatever specialty, ought to vigilantly report on it.

If only we would have a world in which these malpractices would be reported not by bureaucrats and politicians, whose independence is always questionable, but by competing agencies that though maybe partisan in their own fashion are, nonetheless, numerous and varied enough to provide an overall balanced perspective on what they report.

Alas, federal authorities, who will not leave well enough alone, are already compromising the work of the Center of Media and Democracy. In a free country it ought to be sufficient for the CMD to do its work, make it available to the public and then let matters get sorted out by the various players. This would include making the malfeasance itself an item of news.

And that is certainly what it is, in part — I read about the matter in the newspaper Cape Times, in Cape Town, South Africa. But there is no reason for the Federal Communications Commission to stick its bureaucratic fingers into the matter — once the CMD did its business, the various interested parties — broadcasters, viewers, advertisers, etc. — could easily sort it all out nicely.

Sadly, however, the FCC has rushed in and decided to muddy the waters with its own censorious “investigation.” Reportedly investigators from the FCC have approached the CMD for its report, presumably with the intent of doing something about it.

Maybe you will recall the recent upheavals in some print media — The Washington Post several years ago, The New York Times a little more recently, and The New Republic just a year or so ago — where journalistic malpractice came to light. All that had sorted itself out just fine without any government involvement. Why did the feds not rush in when the print media messed up but are eagerly sticking in their noses here, where wrongdoing has apparently come to light in the electronic media?

The reason is that the print media operates in about as pure a free market as we have in our country. Only religion would seem to be even less corrupted with government interference. There is no “Federal Print Journalism Commission” watching over the doings of magazine, newspaper, newsletter and book publishers and editors. This is because the First Amendment to the Constitution has been understood — not without some debate over the issue — to prohibit all government intervention with the printed media. In earlier times the states did have constitutional sanction to regulate the printed media, but this has gradually been replaced with the view that the Constitution protects all of them from government intervention.

In contrast, the electronic media does not operate on a free marketplace. Shortly after the medium was discovered in the early 1900s, the electromagnetic spectrum had been nationalized, back in 1927, on the floor of the Senate, if I recall correctly. That act simply socialized or nationalized one of the most important elements of American society.

At first the federal government established the Federal Radio Commission and later, with the emergence of television broadcasting, this was changed to the Federal Communications Commission.

That is the legal justification behind the involvement of the feds in a matter that ought to be completely left to free-market processes. And that is the reason we have here, when the free market would do a fine job of self-regulation, the intrusion of a bunch of bureaucrats who are not only completely superfluous but most likely instrumental in making what would normally be a matter of professional ethics a matter of partisan, ideological controversy.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu