The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservative backlash kills FCC plan to survey America’s newsrooms

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
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The Federal Communications Commission faced a firestorm of controversy this week over a plan to survey broadcast journalists over how they do their jobs. Conservative critics charged that the survey was a first step toward regulating radio and television reporters. Now FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has bowed to criticism, announcing that questions relating to newsroom coverage will be scrapped.

Every three years, the FCC conducts a congressionally-mandated study of small businesses in the broadcast industry. This year's survey was slated to include questions directed at reporters and news directors like "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?"

But according to the FCC, Chairman Wheeler now believes "that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required." As a result, "journalists will no longer be asked to participate" in the survey.

Opposition to the study was spearheaded by Ajit Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner. "I welcome today's announcement," he said in a Friday statement. "This study would have thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country, somewhere it just doesn't belong."

The FCC insists the controversy was overblown from the outset. "Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America's newsrooms is false," an FCC statement said on Friday. That's true. By itself, the survey wouldn't have required broadcast journalists to change the way they did their jobs.

But critics note that the agency holds the power of life and death over broadcast stations. Broadcasters need a license from the FCC that is subject to periodic renewal. If the agency starts asking stations questions about their "news philosophy," critics argued, stations could take that as a hint that the way they cover the news could affect their prospects for renewal.