Planned FCC Study Raises Concerns About Gov't Intrusion Into Newsrooms

A planned study by the Federal Communications Commission has raised concerns that it could lead to government interference with the freedom of the press.

Plans for the study were released by the FCC in May in a report called "Research Design for the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs."

According to the research design, researchers would spend one week examining the content of news, including broadcast, radio, newspaper and internet news sources, conduct in-depth interviews with a sample of media providers, and conduct a national poll and neighborhood interviews.

The purpose of the study is to understand Americans' access, or barriers to access, of "critical information needs."

Concerns about the study were first raised by a Dec. 10 letter signed by 16 members of Congress that was sent to Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FEC.

The members of Congress accused the FCC of "fairness doctrine 2.0," in reference to a now defunct FCC rule that had required news organizations to air equal time for opposing viewpoints.

The part of the study raising concerns is the newsroom interviews. Some of the suggested interview questions, appearing in Appendix A of the research design, include:

  • What is the news philosophy of the station?
  • How do you define critical information that the community needs?
  • How much influence do reporters and anchors have in deciding which stories to cover?
  • (To reporters) Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers (viewers, listeners, readers) that was rejected by management?

"The Commission has no business probing the news media's editorial judgment and expertise, nor does it have any business in prescribing a set diet of 'critical information.' These goals are plainly inappropriate and are at bottom an incursion by the government into the constitutionally protected operations of the professional news media," the congressional letter stated.

Concerns were also raised by one of the FCC's own commissioners, Ajit Pai, in a Feb. 10 editorial for The Wall Street Journal.

Participation in the study is voluntary, Pai noted, but some media organizations may feel compelled to participate because they get their license from the FCC.

On Wednesday, the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group, also spoke out against the study. Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, drew comparisons with the recent scandal involving the IRS targeting of conservative, pro-life and evangelical groups.

"This is an extremely troubling and dangerous development that represents the latest in an ongoing assault on the Constitution by the Obama Administration," Sekulow said. "We have seen a corrupt IRS unleashed on conservatives. We have seen an imperial president bypass Congress and change the law with Executive Orders. And, now we see the heavy hand of the Obama Administration poised to interfere with the First Amendment rights of journalists. It's clear that the Obama Administration is only interested in utilizing intimidation tactics – at the expense of Americans and the Constitution. The federal government has no place attempting to control the media, using the unconstitutional actions of repressive regimes to squelch free speech."

The FCC has not received funding from Congress for the study.