David Zurawik

Will Team Obama ever stop trying to intimidate the press?

How many attacks on the First Amendment is President Obama going to be allowed before he's universally denounced as a worse enemy of the press than Richard Nixon?

I have been comparing Obama to Nixon in his disdain for the First Amendment and a free press since 2009, and mainly all I got was attacked – often from long-time colleagues in the media who couldn't believe the object of their political affection could have such contempt for them.


I am late coming to the most recent example, the outrageous attempt led in part by an Obama appointee on the Federal Communications Commission, Mignon Clyburn, to send investigators into newsrooms to ask reporters and editors about such matters as selection of stories. It's called the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs (CIN).

"Critical information needs," according to whom? Why, the government and its inspectors, of course.


The inspectors would interview newsroom and management personnel to determine: how "stories are selected, station priorities (for content, production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias, perceived percent of news dedicated to each of the eight CINs, and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations."

Station bias as "perceived" by whom? Why, the government and its inspectors, of course.

The FCC was in full retreat by the end of last week after Ajit Pai, a Republican appointee to the commission, took to the op-edit pages of the Wall Street Journal to explain the reach of the proposed incursion into a free press from the government inspectors.

God bless Pai for his efforts. But this proposal has been in the works for a year with the Democrat-controlled FCC hiring a Maryland company to conduct the inquiry and engaging the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the University of Southern California to help design the questions the government inspectors would be asking.

I know everyone in higher education is scuffling for money these days, but I cannot imagine how anyone at any school of journalism could for one second be party to such an obvious assault on the First Amendment.

I am ashamed to say one of my graduate degrees is from the UW School of Journalism. Right now, I'd like to burn it.

UW has also seen its last dollar from me. And I won't hold my breath waiting for any of the ethicists or First Amendment scholars at those two universities to denounce their schools' involvement or the efforts of the administration to intimidate the press.

One of the reasons I am late coming to this story is that I have been so immersed in the Baltimore-made "House of Cards" the last three weeks. So, maybe I have "House of Cards" on the brain. But doesn't this sound like something worthy of Frank Underwood?


U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat from South Carolina and one-time majority whip, has been a key party player in Congress and hardcore Obama loyalist. So, Obama appoints Clyburn's daughter to the FCC in 2009, and last year she becomes acting chair of the commission.

And one of the proposals she pushes hard in her role as acting chair is sending inspectors into TV newsrooms. In other words, she picks up the baton for Obama as he once again tries to intimidate the press.

And don't think the FCC doesn't have one heckuva a stick with which to do some intimidating in its control of broadcast licenses. The plan initially called only for visits to TV stations in South Carolina. But even the most powerful newspaper chains in the country were vulnerable to this latest Obama push insofar as many of them own broadcast licenses for stations that are far more important to their corporate bottom lines than their newspapers.

As I have written many times, this assault on the free press started in earnest in October 2009 when the Obama White House launched an attack on Fox News. The opening salvos were fired on Sunday TV shows with senior White House officials denouncing Fox and saying it was an arm of the Republican Party.

But the backstage stuff was even down-and-dirtier with the Obama White House saying Fox wasn't a legitimate news organization and should not be treated as a member of the press corps. The White House even began denying Fox access to the administration that it gave to everyone else.

Almost no one from the mainstream media came to the defense of Fox at first, even though the issue was crystal clear: The executive branch of government must never be allowed to determine what is or isn't a legitimate news organization.


The framers of the Constitution and the courts have been consistent in trying to keep the executive branch from interfering with a free press. The last thing the founders of this country would have signed off on is the executive branch having such power. But that's what the so-called Constitutional scholar now occupying the White House wanted to seize before a few brave souls in the mainstream media helped Fox beat back Team Obama.

But it didn't stop the war on the First Amendment. The beat of attempted intimidation has been steady during the Obama years, with the Associated Press being wiretapped and the Justice Department labeling Fox News reporter James Rosen a criminal for trying to gather information.

I have seen colleagues on cable TV talk shows last week laughing off the planned visits to newsrooms as a silly idea.

There is nothing funny about it – or about the administration that keeps trying to bring the press to heel any way it can.