The FCC's Dubious Study of American Media

Does it portend an intrusion on press freedoms? That's unclear. But it certainly appears to be a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

What are the "critical information needs" of Americans? Are they being met by the news media? Any answers would seem to be impossibly subjective. We're a diverse country. Everyone has different needs. There are sustained, intractable disagreements about which news outlets are exceptional and which are valueless. 

Despite those obstacles, Mignon L. Clyburn, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, delivered a speech two summers ago explaining why the FCC would soon study the question. As she told it, the FCC has a mandate to promote diverse media voices, vigorous competition, and the public interest, "in addition to identifying and eliminating market entry barriers for small businesses."

And the study it commissioned on "critical information needs" would begin "the charting of a course to a more effective delivery of necessary information to all citizens." Not only that, the study "holds the promise of enabling them to live safer and healthier lives by highlighting any challenges and exploring a host of opportunities for full access to educational, employment, information and business opportunities in addition to empowering them in their civic involvement."

To sum up: the study + ? = a fully informed citizenry!

* * *

Ajit Pai is also an FCC commissioner. And he would like to warn you about this study. To assess whether the "Critical Information Needs" of Americans are being met, he wrote, "the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run." These interviews will occur after researchers gather and code a random sample of the content that television networks, radio stations, newspapers and websites produce.

Beware, he counsels:

The FCC says the study is merely an objective fact-finding mission. The results will inform a report that the FCC must submit to Congress every three years on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry. This claim is peculiar. How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the CIN study include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?

Sixteen House Republicans had previously voiced their discomfort with the FCC study, declaring in a letter that government has no business "probing the news media’s editorial judgment and expertise" or "prescribing a set diet of ‘critical information.’" In their view, the whole undertaking is "an incursion by the government into the constitutionally protected operations of the professional news media."

Various conservative journalists agreed with varying levels of sophistication. The Fox News Channel's distillation, via Howard Kurtz: the study + ? = a new fairness doctrine :(

* * *

The controversy stoked in the conservative media prompted a statement Thursday from the FCC, and coverage in The Washington Post, which explains where things stand (my emphasis): 

... 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 ... The idea first proved controversial within the FCC ... One of its Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai, blasted the proposed study ... His column triggered wider coverage, primarily among conservative news outlets, such as Fox News Channel and the Drudge Report ... 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 ... 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.

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Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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