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News Story
Updated: 08/28/2013 08:00:02AM

A chink in the armor of press freedom

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Few things would make life more convenient for government than elimination of that pesky First Amendment guarantee of Freedom of the Press.

From bureaucrats who routinely dismiss as “misinformation” anything that doesn’t put them in a favorable light, to politicians who publicly demand to know what right this newspaper has to challenge their position on an issue, the twin freedoms of speech and the press can be a thorn in the political backside.

It goes with the territory, and most politicians respect (even if they don’t enjoy) the right of the public and the press to criticize their actions.

The United States, unlike many nations, does not have a government-sanctioned “official” religion (also thanks to the First Amendment) or a government-controlled news media.

Or does it? A Tampa Tribune story last week reported that U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base is calling for proposals “to provide a radio broadcast system capable of searching for and acquiring every AM and FM radio station in a specific area and then broadcasting a message(s) in the target area on all acquired AM and FM radio station frequencies.”

We in Central Florida tend to view SOCOM with special pride because, in addition to its demonstrated skills in the Global War on Terror, it is in our back yard. And there is nothing wrong with that sense of neighborly pride.

But the concept that a government agency — SOCOM or any other — can, with the push of a button, take over broadcasts on every radio station in a region for the purpose of sending out its own message is unsettling.

The avowed reason, we are told by a veteran Polk County broadcaster, is so that missing person alerts, severe weather warnings, and national defense messages can be broadcast without delay. And that sounds noble.

What is disquieting is that government can usurp the broadcast capabilities, without notice and without (by our reading of the Constitution) regard for the First Amendment rights of private broadcasters.

Finding missing citizens, warning of approaching storms, and broadcasting of national defense messages are worthy tasks. And virtually every radio or TV broadcaster, in our close-up view of the broadcast industry — which is both a competitor and a colleague of the newspaper industry — is more than willing to interrupt its broadcasts for such purposes.

Indeed, it is a point of pride of the “speedy media” that it is able to respond so quickly. We suggest that professional broadcasters (like professional print journalists) are better qualified to effectively communicate such news to the public than government spokesmen.

In other words, there is no need for government to get into the broadcast business, using somebody else’s investment in technology. As in so many other areas, private enterprise is capable of doing a better job.

So what could go wrong? That depends on how implicitly you trust government always to tell the truth and never to shade things in its own interest.

While the push-button takeover of radio stations only works for two minutes at a time, our radio industry friend tells us that the takeover can continue for as long as somebody keeps pushing the button every two minutes.

So if the genuine threat (as in a national security issue) is either greater or less than the “official” version, independent broadcasters cannot use their own capabilities to get out the straight story.

And if government can take over the airwaves for the above-listed purposes, it can take over the airwaves to promote whatever issue it deems in its best interests. Imagine how Benghazi, Shock and Awe, IRS harassment of conservative organizations, or NSA interception of private communications would have been portrayed if government controlled the airwaves.

And in this age when some of the best technical experts are on the wrong side of the law, any button that government can push just might be pushed by someone else.

“The system was hacked a few months ago,” our broadcast friend told us. It is an imperfect system, and the potential for mischief is limited only by the imagination of mischief-makers.

“The National Association of Broadcasters has raised red flags,” he said. “The industry has misgivings.”

So why not just tell the feds to take a hike? “If you want your broadcast license renewed,” he said, “you have to have the equipment installed.”

Emergency takeover of broadcast channels may seem benign on the face of it, but it is a chink in the Constitutional armor of Freedom of Press.


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