FEC chairman warns agency's desire to regulate media 'alive and well'

The chairman of the Federal Election Commission warned Wednesday that officials at the agency want to start regulating the media, despite a longstanding congressional ban on doing so.

"The impulse to regulate the media within the FEC is alive and well," Chairman Lee E. Goodman told FoxNews.com in an interview.

Goodman pointed to several recent decisions and developments that stoke concerns about the commission -- which is supposed to regulate money in federal elections -- sticking its nose in the affairs of the press.

Foremost is a case that was considered in 2013 involving Boston TV station WCVB. The station had invited a Democratic and Republican congressional candidate for a debate-style program during the election a year earlier, but another third-party candidate complained he was illegally excluded. The FEC looked at the case, because of allegations the treatment of the other candidates was tantamount to a contribution.

Ultimately, the FEC dismissed the complaint.

But Goodman voiced concern that it was seriously considered at all, saying the commission was in the position of trying to "second guess the editorial decisions" of the network.

The consideration, he said, "clearly indicates that there are people in the FEC who believe we have the power to regulate the media."

Goodman also pointed to recent cases where the FEC was deadlocked, 3-3, on cases he argues should have been unanimously struck down. This includes a 2010 complaint about "The Sean Hannity Show" over an endorsement that went out on the radio show's distribution list.

Goodman, a Republican, has raised concerns that the FEC could try to specifically regulate conservative media, by chipping away at a media exemption in FEC rules.

But he told FoxNews.com he supports a "broad and absolute media exemption for all press," no matter their political leanings.

The fact that the commission is deliberating on these media cases, he argues, raises the concern that the commission is just one appointment away from eroding that exemption. This, he said, should not be subject to the "idiosyncratic judgment of individual commissioners."

Plus, speaking from experience as a lawyer, he said split decisions can have the effect of chilling media activity. "Split votes kill activity," he said.

Goodman is just the latest federal government official to speak out on the potential for a new wave of government regulation of the press. Goodman wrote about his concerns in detail in a Wall Street Journal column on Feb. 4, warning that the WCVB case means every TV newsroom "must look over its shoulder" when inviting candidates for a joint appearance.

But just a few days later, Federal Communications Commission member Ajit Pai penned a similarly themed column in the same newspaper, warning about a controversial newsroom study -- which was later shelved amid intense controversy.

Further, comments from retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens - in which he suggested the Constitution be amended to allow for "reasonable limits" on money to campaigns under the First Amendment -- raised additional red flags.

Goodman also told The Washington Examiner he's concerned about "disparate treatment of conservative media" if the FEC starts to go down this road.

But some of his colleagues on the FEC have accused Goodman of overstating the situation.

In response to his Feb. 4 column, Vice Chair Ann Ravel and Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub said Goodman drew some "mystifying inferences" from the Boston case. They said in a response published in the Journal that the dismissal "hardly would seem to provide fodder for hyperbolic claims of 'aggressive FEC regulation' or threats of censoring Sunday morning talk shows."

"These charges ignore a lengthy FEC history of Democratic commissioners voting to enforce the federal campaign laws against Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives, up to and including recent presidents of the U.S. of both parties," they wrote.