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FCC Throws In the Towel on Explosive Content Study
Intrusive media survey idea had people riled, but it was doomed from the start

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

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“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.

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“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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