FCC scraps media survey amid allegations of trying to regulate news

Giuseppe Macri | Tech Editor

The Federal Communications Commission cancelled a plan to evaluate the coverage of major media outlets Friday after a tidal wave of media criticism alleged the agency was attempting to influence and regulate the news media industry.

“In the course of FCC review and public comment, concerns were raised that some of the questions may not have been appropriate,” the agency said in a statement Friday. “Chairman Wheeler agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required.”

The FCC came under sharp criticism from congressional Republicans and a fellow agency commissioner over its proposed Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs, or “CIN” study, which aimed to assess how the news media covered “critical information” by sending FCC regulators into the offices of major television, newspaper, and internet media outlets across the country.

Criticism came to a head last week when FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai expressed his concern in a Wall Street Journal editorial, and took to numerous media outlets this week, including The Daily Caller, to reinforce his warning of the potential dangers the study posed to the free press.

According to Pai, it would be “inappropriate” for the government “to inject itself into” the role of regulating media, which Pai warned could subtly influence coverage by creating a list of topics the government deems “critical,” and judging news outlets based on the criteria. Pai told The Daily Caller the study posed an even greater overt threat by indirectly causing media outlets to worry about their ability to renew broadcasting licenses with the agency if they refuse to participate in the study or receive a poor assessment.

Despite a response letter from FCC Chair Tom Wheeler saying the study was not an attempt to force news organizations into changing their coverage, the agency conceded the battle and Wheeler called for the removal of the questions entirely.

“Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America’s newsrooms is false,” the statement said. “The FCC looks forward to fulfilling its obligation to Congress to report on barriers to entry into the communications marketplace, and is currently revising its proposed study to achieve that goal.”

According to Wheeler, the purpose of the study was to assess any potential market barriers keeping startups and entrepreneurs from breaking into the telecommunications and information industry, and fulfill its role of reporting to Congress on any such barriers within its jurisdiction.

The agency is reportedly revising its study into a new demographics-based survey, which raises a new concern that the FCC may use the new version to revise media ownership rules and base them on race.

It’s unclear why the agency took it upon itself to investigate the existence of any such industry barriers, especially after Wheeler himself stated in his letter that such jurisdiction would fall to Congress first. The study did not clarify how assessing the coverage topics of news organizations would reveal industry barriers outside of vague allusions to “diversity,” which could be a precursor to the future form the study may take.

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