The Federal Communications Commission has backed away from the senseless study it planned that would have had researchers snooping into the content decisions made in local broadcast newsrooms. While that is nice to know, the American public now needs to hear what Paul Harvey would have described as “the rest of the story.”
First, it is worth noting this planned intrusion into television newsrooms didn’t come out of the blue; it had been in the works for almost two years. The public alarm was sounded only recently by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who went rogue and blasted his own commission with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Long before that, however, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn signaled the forthcoming Critical Information Needs study. She gave a speech in June 2012 in which she called for collecting such data, urging the FCC to “devote more attention to meeting the critical information needs of all Americans by breaking down barriers.”
The research firm contracted to conduct the study, Social Solutions International, met in September 2012 with FCC representatives to devise the research plan, which was delivered to the FCC last April. The FCC then issued a public notice of the upcoming study in November. That prompted a protest letter from Rep. Fred Upton, chair of the House Commerce Committee. Upton, along with 15 cosigners, urged newly installed FCC Chair Tom Wheeler to ditch the study, but with no effect. It wasn’t until Pai’s Wall Street Journal blast that the media and public got engaged.
The underlying FCC motivation for studying newsroom practices has little to do with information needs, and everything to do with who owns the media. The planned study was camouflage for finding a way to keep huge media corporations from becoming larger. FCC commissioners, such as Clyburn and former chair Julius Genachowski, have long been concerned that big media corporations prevent a diversity of ownership, particularly among women and minorities. While arguments can be made for wanting diverse ownership in media, the FCC has not yet found an approach that can withstand legal challenges.
The study of newsroom content decisions in order to forge a case for changing ownership regulations is surely a fool’s errand. The barriers to diverse ownership are unrelated to decisions made in newsrooms, and even if data to that effect could be concocted, free press protections would keep the FCC from enacting regulations based on it. The barriers to media ownership today are structural and capital related, and that goes for all smaller investors – women, minority or otherwise.
While this study was ill advised, some of the hair-on-fire reactions to it were, in the words of Indiana University Telecommunications Professor Mike McGregor, “outrageously misleading.” Some critics, including Pai and Upton, claimed the study was a first step toward reinstating the so-called Fairness Doctrine. “I don’t see this as a possible avenue back to the (Fairness Doctrine). I don’t know of anyone – at least in the Obama administration – who’s seriously interested in this,” McGregor wrote in an email.
Some pundits worried that the FCC could use newsroom surveillance to revoke broadcasters’ licenses. But the FCC hasn’t revoked a license for content matters in more than 50 years. “There’s absolutely no possibility that a station would have lost its license over this programming inquiry,” wrote McGregor, himself a former FCC attorney.
A Fox News host fretted that the FCC could come into the newsroom to dictate news coverage to FNC producers, apparently overlooking the fact that the FCC has no jurisdiction over cable or network operations. While such shrill reactions were over the top, this is the kind of paranoia that happens when a government agency starts meddling in free expression.
In backing away from the study, Wheeler said in a statement, “Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news … is false.” Clyburn said in prepared remarks, “I would never be part of any effort to chill speech, shape the news or influence news gatherers.”
If that’s the case, the question then becomes why would they even consider such an intrusive study into the journalistic process, the effects of which would, indeed, chill news decision-making. It is this lack of First Amendment understanding that the FCC must still explain to journalists and the American people.
Jeffrey McCall is a Professor of Communications and Theater at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. This post was originally published in the Indianapolis Star. It is republished here with the permission of the author. Email McCall at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Prof_McCall.