March 4, 2014

Mark Millican: A chilling proposal

— Awhile back the Times-Courier was approached about doing a story on a new business we were told would bring several jobs into the county. A staff writer went to check it out and received a glowing report of a facility in the works and how the company would recycle a common agricultural byproduct in the area — and benefit the environment as well.

After getting the names of the partners in the venture and how the process had purportedly succeeded elsewhere, our reporter did the research and found the company and one of the partners had been charged a few years ago in a federal indictment with mail fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud and conspiracy to induce investors to invest money in their two start-up companies.

One of the partners charged in the indictment — who was promoting the same business here — was acquitted. But his former partner at the time was convicted. Since the company name we were given was also mentioned in the indictment, we decided we’d wait to see more results of the process before moving ahead with a story.

After all, a former editor once told me, “We ask questions, but that doesn’t always mean we’ll do a story.” That didn’t sit well with the new partner who was never charged back then, and I was told we were a hayseed newspaper no one read anyway and they’d take the story to Blue Ridge and Blairsville.

Because a reporter did their homework and we reserve the right to publish what we feel is in the best interest of the community, we may have saved ourselves and some people here from potentially being embarrassed.

But newspapers across the country should have felt a shudder a couple of weeks ago when the Federal Communications Commission floated a proposal that it would place “monitors” in newsrooms to ask editors and reporters how they get their stories and if editors and publishers are keeping some reporters’ stories from seeing the light of day.

It’s all in the guise of newspapers “under-serving” certain segments of their communities, at least in the eyes of the FCC.

What’s interesting is the way media outlets responded to the news. A day after the story broke, I looked across the span of liberal and conservative news websites that are on my radar and, to be honest, was a bit distressed. ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and a handful of others had not a shred of a story, while Fox News, World Net Daily and a couple of others were all over it.

MSNBC dismissed the story as conservative media getting their shorts in a wad, something blown out of proportion by a Republican commissioner in FCC leadership. But many newspapers, not just conservative ones, reacted with outrage over the proposal, calling it the first step into an Orwellian future where news content is what the government orders it to be, a la Tass and Pravda in the former USSR. This is, I presume, because a Democrat is our current president and it might appear his administration is trying to get a representative into newsrooms around the country.

One man running for office in Virginia came down squarely for the FCC proposal: “Fox News does nothing but tell lies and mistruths. They have unqualified political analysts. We need FCC to monitor and regulate them,” said Mike Dickinson, a Democratic candidate for Congress.

Unqualified analysts? Democratic strategist Bob Beckel is on Fox News every weekday, as is Juan Williams on many days, formerly of left-oriented PBS. What I don’t see on many of the major network and liberal cable TV channels are conservative commentators, by and large.

You be the judge. What if a governor was accused of ethics violations and several newspapers tried to report on it, but editors and publishers were hampered because an FCC monitor in the newsroom — representing the federal government — tacitly let it be known the governor was a big supporter of one of the president’s unpopular directives, like a health care overhaul? And if the paper persisted in covering the story and conceivably embarrassing the president, there could be an IRS audit and multi-year investigation of every move they made in covering the news over the last decade (hint, hint).

And then last Friday we had this breaking news from The Washington Examiner: “A significant problem with the now-suspended Federal Communications Commission plan to have government contractors question journalists about editorial decisions and practices was that it was a partisan exercise. The plan originated among Democrats on the FCC; the commission’s two Republican members didn’t even learn about it until it was well underway.”

Just paranoia in the newsroom? You decide.

Mark Millican is a former Daily Citizen staff writer and is editor of the Times-Courier in Ellijay.

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