FCC Throws In the Towel on Explosive Content Study

by Tim Cavanaugh
Intrusive media survey idea had people riled, but it was doomed from the start

The Federal Communications Commission has pulled the plug on its plan to conduct an intrusive probe of newsrooms as part of a “Critical Information Needs” survey of local media markets.

However, a revised version of the survey could raise new concerns: that it will trade its now-kiboshed news questions for a demographic survey that might justify new race-based media ownership rulemaking.

“In the course of FCC review and public comment, concerns were raised that some of the questions may not have been appropriate,” the FCC announced in a statement Friday. “Chairman [Tom] Wheeler agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required. Last week, Chairman Wheeler informed lawmakers that that Commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study. Yesterday, the Chairman directed that those questions be removed entirely.”

The Critical Information Needs (CIN) survey has been a slow-burning controversy since ever since this reporter first revealed its existence in October 2013.

First Amendment supporters objected that the design of the survey would have had FCC representatives interrogating newsroom staffers about how they make coverage decisions and select (or spike) story ideas. Many commentators objected to the potential intimidation involved in such a survey.

The original plan of the survey would also have taken the FCC out of its traditional purview of regulating supposedly scarce airwaves. Because the CIN sought to discover “underserved” consumers in a variety of “media ecologies,” the survey would have included not only broadcast media but newspapers, blogs, and online news.

However, there have been consistent doubts that the survey was ever going to happen. In a December follow-up article I found that none of the major broadcast, print, or online media in Columbia, South Carolina – the market selected for the Critical Information Needs pilot study — had heard from either the FCC or Silver Spring, Md.-based Social Solutions International (SSI) the FCC’s contractor on the project.

Columbia media professionals, along with the South Carolina Broadcasters Association, reiterated Friday that the pilot survey never began.

“No one has been contacted in Columbia,” WLTX general manager Rich O’Dell told National Review Online Friday, prior to Wheeler’s announcement. “There’s been no official contact by anybody at the FCC or anywhere else.”

The CIN survey also came under fire from Congress. In December, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), along with Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications & Technology, wrote to Wheeler to express their concerns about the survey’s potential chilling effects.

The combination of congressional pushback and the apparent slow-walking of the survey led to wide speculation that Wheeler was not interested in the CIN proposal — which was concocted under former chairman Julius Genachowski and continued under interim chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.

The FCC, along with SSI, have consistently declined to comment on the CIN survey. But even before Friday’s walkback, Wheeler had conceded that the project was being revised in a response to Upton’s December letter released Thursday but dated February 14.

“Your letter and the opportunity for public review surfaced a number of issues and modification of the Research Design may be necessary,” Wheeler wrote. “My staff has engaged in a careful and thorough review of the Research Design with the contractor to ensure that the inquiries closely hew to the mandate of Section 257. While the Research Design is a tool intended to help the Commission consider effective, pro-competitive policies that would encourage new entrants, its direction need not go beyond our responsibilities. We continue to work with the contractor to adapt the study in response to these concerns and expect to complete this work in the next few weeks.”

This was not enough to quell a media firestorm that began last week when FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai published a Wall Street Journal op-ed condemning the proposal. Conservative commentators joined free-speech advocates in slamming the proposal.

“As designed, the study empowers researchers to not only ask a series of questions of news staff, it also provides (in pages 10 and 11) advice for gaining access to employees even when broadcasters and their Human Resources refuse to provide confidential employee information,” David French wrote Thursday on National Review Online. “The Obama administration FCC is abusing its regulatory authority by attempting to discern the inner workings of American newsrooms.”

The elimination of the newsroom probe raises the question of what form a future CIN survey may take. The cost of conducting the survey needs to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget, and the original $900,000 contract with Social Solutions International has reportedly been revised downward.

One observer speculated to National Review Online that the FCC may take this opportunity to revisit a matter on which it has repeatedly been shot down. The airwaves regulator has been consistently blocked by courts in its efforts to establish race-based media ownership rules – on the grounds that it did not have data to justify such rulemaking. There is a movement to make the CIN a mechanism for gathering such data.

A December comment on an unrelated FCC docket suggests this idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. A group called the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights singled out the CIN survey as an avenue for race-based research by the FCC.

“Communities of color and women should have opportunities to control the distribution and creation of images about themselves,” the Conference wrote on December 5. “We look forward to working with the Chairman to consider the variety of technologies and policy initiatives that would accomplish that objective. We emphasized the importance of collecting data that tracks the impact of media consolidation on women and people of color, as mandated by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Prometheus v. FCC . . . We expressed our support for the Section 257 Critical Information Needs studies as a mechanism to obtain such data, and encouraged the Commission to move ahead with the effort, paying special attention to its ability to assess the needs of linguistic minorities.”

– Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online.

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