Watching the words

We Americans disagree, sometimes fiercely, about government policy and priorities. Liberals argue with conservatives. Republicans do battle with Democrats.

But on one thing, we must for the good of our children and grandchildren concur: No politician can be permitted to control the free press upon which Americans have depended for more than two centuries for the very information we need to insist the government do what we tell it.

President Barack Obama’s administration has embarked on a campaign of manipulating – and intimidating – the news media. That ought to worry all Americans of all political persuasions.

Obama is not the first president to attempt to control the press. Most have focused on individual reporters, newspapers or broadcast outlets, however. This White House has adopted a blanket approach.

About a year ago, the Justice Department seized call records for about 20 telephones used by The Associated Press at the organization’s offices in Washington, New York and Connecticut. At the same time it was revealed other reporters had been targeted. One television journalist’s phone records and personal email messages were obtained. Even some of his family members’ communications were examined.

The AP episode may well have been intended to send a message to print journalists. The AP is among the world’s most important news collecting operations. Many newspapers, including this one, rely on it for national and international news.

Now, the administration has turned to intimidating broadcast journalists as a group.

Federal Communications Commission officials have devised a plan to question television news reporters and editors – sometimes visiting their newsrooms to do so – about how they select stories to be covered. The agency also plans to check on whether television news departments cover “critical information needs” – as defined, of course, by the FCC. And the agency wants to know how well broadcast news serves “vulnerable-disadvantaged populations” – again, as defined by the FCC.

No television or radio station in the U.S. can operate without an FCC license. Again, a message is being sent: Operate your newsrooms as this agency desires, or face the consequences.

We Americans disagree on many issues. One on which we simply must agree, however, is that no government can be permitted to control the free flow of information.

Fortunately, the FCC has backed off the plan for now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be resurrected in the future under a different frontispiece.