Republicans are making a startling accusation: The Federal Communications Commission is quietly trying to control the editorial decisions of TV news broadcasts.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published online Monday, Ajit Pai, a Republican FCC commissioner, said the agency is taking a "dangerous" first step toward "newsroom policing" in the style of the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine. Under the controversial doctrine, which the FCC abandoned in 1987 and formally took off the books in 2011, the agency required radio and TV stations to air opposing views on controversial issues.
Pai expressed alarm that the FCC could soon start questioning why Fox spends so much time covering the attacks in Benghazi, or why NBC has focused on the controversy over lane closures in New Jersey.
House Republicans made a similar accusation in December, claiming the FCC was working on a "Fairness Doctrine 2.0."
"Given the widespread calls for the commission to respect the First Amendment and stay out of the editorial decisions of reporters and broadcasters, we were shocked to see that the FCC is putting itself back in the business of attempting to control the political speech of journalists," Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote in a letter to the FCC.
"It is wrong, it is unconstitutional, and we urge you to put a stop to this most recent attempt to engage the FCC as the 'news police.' "
The controversy stems from a study the agency plans to conduct on "critical information needs." The FCC is required by law to study ways to eliminate barriers to entry for small media businesses.
Among other things, the agency plans to ask TV journalists about their "news philosophy" and "the process by which stories are selected." The study will gather data on "perceived station bias" and "perceived responsiveness to underserved populations." The FCC also wants to examine how local TV stations cover "critical information" such as "economic opportunities" and the "environment."
In his op-ed, Pai described the FCC's proposal as sending "researchers to grill reporters, editors, and station owners about how they decide which stories to run."
Responding to the questions is entirely voluntary — although Pai suggested that stations will feel pressured to participate because they depend on FCC licenses to operate.
The FCC is not proposing any new rules to restrict the content of TV stations, and the commission has said the study is just part of a routine process of gathering information about the TV industry.
But an FCC official said Tuesday that the agency may rework the study to address the Republican concerns.
"The commission has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make," the official told National Journal. "We're closely reviewing the proposed research design to determine if an alternative approach is merited."
The FCC proposed the draft study last year under Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, before the current chairman, Tom Wheeler, took office. The official said the agency is now working on a new draft of the study.