Proposed FCC study of news organizations sparks conservative outcry

February 20

A proposed government study of how media organizations gather news has incited a powerful backlash, particularly among conservatives, who said that it could be part of an official effort to intimidate or second-guess journalists.

Faced with an outcry, the Federal Communications Commission’s chairman said Thursday that he would amend the effort — intended to assess whether the news media were meeting the public’s “critical information needs” — by removing questions that critics had deemed invasive.

The FCC last year proposed an analysis of news content from newspapers, Web sites and radio and TV stations. The agency said it wanted to assess the coverage of eight “critical information” subjects, including public health, politics, transportation, the environment and “economic opportunities.”

As the survey was originally designed, government researchers would have asked reporters, anchors and news managers at as many as 280 news organizations to describe their outlet’s “news philosophy” and about how they selected stories.

Among the questions the FCC proposed asking journalists: “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your [viewers, listeners or readers] that was rejected by management?” And: “What was the reason given for the decision?”

The idea first proved controversial within the FCC, which is an independent agency that currently has a majority of Democratic commissioners. One of its Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai, blasted the proposed study in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal last week. “The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories,” he wrote.

His column triggered wider coverage, primarily among conservative news outlets, such as Fox News Channel and the Drudge Report, which highlighted Pai’s perspective on Thursday. Fox News said the idea had “frightening implications” and raised the specter of government officials monitoring the nation’s newsrooms.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler responded to the growing furor Thursday by ordering the removal of questions about news philosophy and editorial judgment.

Last week, in a letter about the study to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the House committee that oversees the FCC, Wheeler said that the commission had “no intention of regulating political or other speech.”

Wheeler inherited this project from his predecessor, former interim chairman Mignon Clyburn.

The study, scheduled to begin in the spring, is to be part of a larger report that the FCC must submit to Congress periodically about its efforts to encourage greater ownership diversity among media companies. The FCC says the study has cost $500,000 thus far.

In an interview Thursday, Pai suggested that news organizations might feel compelled to cooperate with a government study, given that the FCC holds the power to renew radio and TV licenses. The agency could potentially reject a station’s license renewal if it failed to meet a “critical information needs” test, he said.

In practice, however, the FCC has rarely rejected a license-­renewal application, even by radio and TV stations that don’t broadcast any news.

Pai said his goal was “to get rid of this study altogether and avoid having anyone in the government probing deeply into America’s newsrooms.”

Wheeler’s statement about eliminating questions for journalists encouraged Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, a Washington-based organization. “My initial response is that we feel better about this,” he said Thursday. “If in fact it is completely devoid of anything related to editorial issues and procedures, then we would be more comfortable with it.”

Some conservatives have suggested that the proposal was part of a government effort to rein in the media. In an editorial, Investors Business Daily said the study was a “recrudescence,” or revival, of the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation discarded in 1987 that required broadcasters to air opposing points of view on controversial topics. Many broadcasters kept controversial topics off the air altogether rather than devote time to alternative opinions.

But Cavender rejected that idea. “We’re not concerned about some grand scheme to go down the road to onerous new regulations,” he said. “We just don’t think this should have anything to do with editorial decisions.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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