The FCC as News Police: Right Hand, Meet Left Hand

Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is feeling his oats. After conducting a calculated and ideologically-driven campaign against a proposed FCC study of the practices and processes of journalism, the agency capitulated, killing the idea entirely. Pai reveled in his accomplishment: "In our country, the government does not tell the people what information they need. Instead, news outlets and the American public decide that for themselves."
Yet the FCC is in fact defining what news is, and it did so just last month—before Pai went on the warpath about the FCC as "newsroom police."
The case involves a $44,000 fine levied against WLS-AM in Chicago for airing newscasts from Workers Independent News (WIN)—a syndicated radio news program that I co-founded in the early 2000s. As I explained when the fine was first proposed last year, WIN is a fully credentialed news organization that upholds high standards of journalistic accuracy and integrity…and I should know, because I developed those standards. But labor news, which once upon a time enjoyed prominent coverage (especially in newspapers and on the radio), is all but impossible to find on the radio today. So in order to break this blackout, WIN pays commercial stations to carry their newscasts.
WLS ran afoul of the FCC because, in a fraction of the cases in which it aired Workers Independent News material, it failed to run a disclaimer that WIN had paid for the airtime. On a technical level, the FCC is simply upholding the law: if someone pays for airtime, and the material does not explicitly promote a product or service, the station needs to disclose that.
But the FCC’s decision did not stop there. In explaining the severity of the fine, the Commission is quite explicit in its journalistic determination: Workers Independent News is, in fact, not news. After first defining it as "informational program material" (p. 2) and transcribing an entire WIN newscast (p. 2-3), the FCC then discusses the legal merits of the case. It first insinuates that Workers Independent News may meet the criteria of being misleading or deceptive, thus triggering the fine (p. 5).
I strongly encourage you to read the transcribed newscast. All things considered, it’s fairly milquetoast, and certainly pitches no product, service, or persuasive ideology. Nothing substantively or stylistically out of line with what commercial news operations regularly air, which is kind of the point. WLS is not the only major-market news station to have aired Workers Independent News stories over the last decade-plus.
In assessing the severity of the fine, "the Commission considered the nature, circumstances, and gravity of the violations in noting that the announcements in question were formatted and presented as news" (p. 7), and chastised WLS for not correcting the record: "e.g. broadcast announcements notifying listeners that the 11 90-second advertisements previously aired were not, in fact, news stories…the station’s listeners were exposed to material that appeared to be objective news stories deprived of the knowledge that the material was, in fact, prepared to convey the particular point of view of the organization that paid…the Licensee…to air it." (p. 8).
That’s a pretty damning assessment of Workers Independent News, and there is absolutely no evidentiary basis for it. Now, who is more qualified to define journalism: someone like me, or a faceless bureaucrat in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau? The answer is obvious, but the opposite is reality. And the damage has already been done: when the FCC first proposed the WLS fine last year, Workers Independent News executive producer Frank Emspak reported a definite chilling effect.
"Before the FCC fine was announced, we had two radio stations that were interested in airing our news," he said. "Now we can’t get those stations to call us back. It feels like we might be on some sort of blacklist, but we’re not sure." One can only imagine the situation now that the fine has been formalized, and with it the FCC’s editorial dictate.
The irony has not been lost on Emspak. "Fox News isn’t fined by the FCC for being liars, but here [WLS is] fined for carrying so called ‘fake news’ about workers." Similarly, Ajit Pai cozied up to Fox News to use its platform as a political cudgel to beat the FCC into submission on the journalism study. This is precisely why the FCC could stand to learn more about how journalism actually works today.
There’s no apparent recourse to appeal the FCC’s ruling on the legitimacy of Workers Independent News. I am somewhat surprised that WLS did not argue this point in its initial appeal; while it might not have prevented the fine, it certainly would have prevented the FCC from making the very value judgment that (presumably) Commissioner Ajit Pai and I both abhor. I’ve asked Pai directly about this case but have been met with silence. I guess the news police are free to give beatdowns so long as the news in question is disenfranchised and unprofitable. But hey, that’s justice in America.