The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission rightly decided last week to withdraw and revise a proposed study of how news agencies around the country are meeting "underserved" minority communities' "critical information needs."
The idea that the government could presume to decide what these needs are and use the force of the federal government to ensure that they are met resulted in a head-on collision with the First Amendment to the Constitution, and its guarantees of freedom of speech and the press.
It is good, and indeed necessary, that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency "has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters."
But that leaves the FCC between a rock - the Constitution - and a hard place. A series of court decisions has said the FCC is not doing enough to ensure minority ownership of media using the publicly owned broadcast spectrum, as required by law. And the courts have said that the FCC also should sharpen the tools it uses to tilt license decisions in favor of more "diverse" ownership.
For example, a 2002 decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Prometheus Radio Project v. Federal Communications Commission banned the FCC from using its then-principal tool for measuring minority ownership, known as the "Diversity Index," for making decisions on minority ownership of broadcast media, ruling it was too imprecise and failed to meet a congressional mandate.
When the federal agency goes back to the drawing board to decide how to resolve the conflicting pressures on its mission, it would be wise to treat the First Amendment as a line that it cannot cross.
That should mean abandoning the effort to create a definition of "critical information needs" for government-defined communities that would allow the government to look over the shoulders of news executives, editors and reporters - and, in effect, tell them what it and isn't "news."