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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 12, 2013, before the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on cellphones on planes. / Susan Walsh, AP

One of the messy things about a free press is that you might not always like what it's reporting.

If you're a liberal, Fox News drives you crazy. If you're a conservative, you're not a big fan of MSNBC. If you're an NPR buff, you're appalled when spasms of Biebermania occur elsewhere.

OK, so you get upset. Or change the channel. Or click on something else. But the fact that you aren't going to love everything you encounter goes with the territory.

Which brings us to the Federal Communications Commission and its misguided plan to stick its unwelcome nose into the newsrooms of America and explore how journalists are doing their jobs.

The FCC decided in its infinite wisdom that it would be a good idea to launch something called a Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs. Said study would investigate, among other things, "the process by which stories are selected," how news outlets are fulfilling "critical information needs" and if there is "perceived station bias." Journalists would be asked, among other things, if they ever had story ideas squashed by management. The project was set to launch with a pilot project in Columbia, S.C., in the spring.

How anyone even came up with this idea, let alone how it was put into motion, is hard to fathom. Not to go all Tea Party on you, but those questions are none of the government's business. The last thing we need is journalism cops flooding into newsrooms to check up on how the sausage is being made. That's particularly true when the journalism cops are dispatched by the outfit that grants licenses to television and radio stations.

Fortunately, the FCC, under heavy fire - particularly in the conservative media and on Capitol Hill - for this boneheaded, intrusive initiative, is now in full retreat mode. On Friday, FCC spokeswoman Shannon Gilson ran up the white flag.

In a statement, she said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler "agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required." Now he noticed.

Gilson said Wheeler had told lawmakers he wasn't interested in messing with political speech and that the offending questions would be scrapped. What's more, the Columbia pilot project is off until a new and improved study is whipped up. And, most important, future studies, if any, "will not seek participation from or include questions for media owners, news directors or reporters."

OK, so we have a happy ending. But that's hardly reassuring. Such an enterprise shouldn't have gotten off the ground. And who knows what would have happened if an FCC commissioner who opposed the study, Ajit Pai, hadn't gone public with aWall Street Journal op-ed earlier this month. That's what galvanized the flurry of attention that doomed the ill-advised initiative.

Wheeler told Rep. Fred Upton, R. Mich., that the study was simply part of the FCC's duty to investigate "market entry barriers." But you'd think that could happen without blundering into newsroom decision-making.

Thunder on the right suggested the study was an effort by the nefarious Obama administration to control the media. Which confused me. I thought it was an article of faith on the right that the dreaded liberal media were already in the tank for The One.

It's more likely that it was a well-intentioned but poorly-thought-out attempt to make sure citizens are getting critical information in an era when traditional news outlets have been battered by the digital revolution.

But it's really not wise for the government to get entangled with journalism, regardless of the motive. The independence of the press is paramount.

Several years back, when there was the sense that legacy media were in free fall, there was a flurry of interest in the idea that the feds should bankroll news outlets - never mind that that would be an overwhelming conflict of interest when your mission is to investigate the people footing your bills.

But when the FCC issued a report in 2011 on the state of journalism, it was unequivocal in its rejection of that approach.

"Most of the solutions to today's media problems will be found by entrepreneurs, reporters, and creative citizens, not legislators or agencies," the report declared, "Government cannot 'save journalism.' "

That's just as true today as it was then.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Rieder: The FCC's journalism fiasco

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