FCC Abandons Intrusive Media Survey That Never Even Got Underway in Test Market

According to a report by Tim Cavanaugh, news editor of National Review Online, 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.

FCC spokesperson Shannon Gilson issued a news release that indicated in the course of the commission's review and public comment, “concerns were raised that some of the questions may not have been appropriate. 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” for the pilot study in Columbia, South Carolina.

In addition, Wheeler “informed lawmakers that the commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study.” However, the chairman later stated that “those questions will be removed entirely.”

The CIN survey has been “a slow-burning controversy” ever since it was first revealed in October of 2003. The news editor stated on Friday:

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, Cavanaugh noted. 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, even before the plan got underway, several glitches took most of the steam out of the program. More than six weeks later, officials in Columbia had not heard from either the FCC or Silver Spring, Maryland-based Social Solutions International (SSI), the Commission's contractor on the project.

The survey also came under fire from Congress, Cavanaugh indicated. In December, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton -- a Republican from Michigan -- and Rep. Greg Walden, a member of the GOP from Oregon who serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Technology, wrote to Wheeler to express their concerns about the survey’s potential chilling effects.

As recently as last Thursday, the broadcast networks of NBC, ABC and CBS completely ignored the potential threat to press freedom. On the following day, neither the Associated Press nor the New York Times joined the program, adding to the doubt that the survey would ever get started.

The FCC, along with SSI, has consistently declined to comment on the CIN survey, which was initiated by former chairman Julius Genachowski and continued under interim chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.

Nevertheless, Wheeler conceded in a letter released on Thursday but dated Friday, February 14, that the project was being revised in a response to Upton’s letter.

Your letter and the opportunity for public review surfaced a number of issues, and modification of the Research Design may be necessary. 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.

Cavanaugh stated that Wheeler's reply “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 program.

“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,” wrote David French, author of “The Corner” column in National Review Online.

“The Obama administration FCC is abusing its regulatory authority by attempting to discern the inner workings of American newsrooms,” French added.

Just like ObamaCare, the Solyndra  “green energy” project and other programs initiated by this White House, the most difficult part of the process is just getting off the ground – unless of course you're being funded by liberal billionaire George Soros.
 

Randy Hall
Randy Hall