Facing massive backlash from the public over its announced plan to place government contractors in the newsrooms of TV stations and print media to “study critical information needs,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it would abandon the idea only one day after the plan was made public.
The FCC billed its “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” as a hands-off way to gauge “perceived station bias” and “perceived responsiveness to underserved populations” by placing monitors at news outlets to observe the degree to which news organizations rely on input from the communities they serve.
But the FCC has absolutely zero authority to regulate print media, and it would introduce unConstitutional infringements by extending the scope of its regulatory practices over broadcast services to include government scrutiny of content and content creation.
“No one’s that stupid – we know exactly what they’re trying to do,” said Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren Thursday in an interview with Ajit Pai:
Pai, himself an FCC commissioner, was among the earliest and most vocal critics of the plan. He described its methodology this way:
First, the agency selected eight categories of “critical information” such as the “environment” and “economic opportunities,” that it believes local newscasters should cover. It plans to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their “news philosophy” and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information.
The FCC also wants to wade into office politics. One question for reporters is: “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?” Follow-up questions ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions.
The FCC caved today, releasing a statement that tried to control the damage by minimizing the eventual scope of the project and admitting that the study, in its present form at least, reaches too far:
By law, the FCC must report to Congress every three years on the barriers that may prevent entrepreneurs and small business from competing in the media marketplace, and pursue policies to eliminate those barriers. To fulfill that obligation in a meaningful way, the FCC’s Office of Communications Business Opportunities consulted with academic researchers in 2012 and selected a contractor to design a study which would inform the FCC’s report to Congress. Last summer, the proposed study was put out for public comment and one pilot to test the study design in a single marketplace – Columbia, S.C. – was planned.
However, in the course of FCC review and public comment, concerns were raised that some of the questions may not have been appropriate. Chairman Wheeler agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required. Last week, Chairman Wheeler informed lawmakers that that Commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study. Yesterday, the Chairman directed that those questions be removed entirely.
To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, S.C. pilot study. The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final. Any subsequent market studies conducted by the FCC, if determined necessary, will not seek participation from or include questions for media owners, news directors or reporters.
Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America’s newsrooms is false. The FCC looks forward to fulfilling its obligation to Congress to report on barriers to entry into the communications marketplace, and is currently revising its proposed study to achieve that goal.