The Federal Communications Commission is planning a broad probe of political speech across media platforms, an unprecedented move that raises serious First Amendment concerns.
The FCC’s proposed “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” which is set to begin a field test in a single market with an eye toward a comprehensive study in 2014, would collect a remarkably wide range of information on demographics, point of view, news topic selection, management style and other factors in news organizations both in and out of the FCC’s traditional purview.
The airwaves regulator would also subject news producers in all media to invasive questioning about their work and content.
A methodology [pdf] worked up by Silver Spring, Maryland-based Social Solutions International (SSI) says that in addition to its general evaluation of news content, the survey will include a “qualitative component” featuring interrogations of news organization owners, management and employees.
Among the questions federal contractors will be asking of private media companies:
For media owners:
“What is the news philosophy of the station?”
For editors, producers and managers:
“Do you have any reporters or editors assigned to topic ‘beats’? If so how many and what are the beats?”
“Who decides which stories are covered?”
“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?” (Followup questions ask the reporter to speculate on why a particular story was spiked.)
According to a May article in Communications Daily, Social Solutions International will be paid $917,823 for the study, which also questions news consumers about their habits and numerically codes news content according to how well, in the FCC’s view, it meets the “critical information needs” (CIN) of particular “communities.”
“The FCC has a duty to make sure that the industries it regulates serve the needs of the American public no matter where they live or what financial resources they have,” acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said in a May announcement [pdf] of the survey. “The research design we announce today is an important next step in understanding what those needs are, how Americans obtain the information critical to their daily lives in a dynamic technological environment, and what barriers exist in our media ecologies to providing and accessing this information.”
Other observers take a less sanguine view of the proposal.
“In this study, the FCC will delve into the editorial discretion of newspapers, web sites and radio and TV stations,” Hudson Institute Fellow Robert McDowell, who served as an FCC commissioner from 2009 to 2013, told The Daily Caller. “This starts sticking the government’s nose into what has traditionally been privileged and protected ground. Regardless of one’s political stripes, one should be concerned.”
In comments about the survey methodology, the National Association of Broadcasters also expressed concerns about the “constitutional implications” of the FCC’s inquiry.
“There is no compelling need for the ‘Qualitative Analysis of Media Providers,’ which calls for government-sponsored researchers to question local journalists in the six analyzed markets about their news judgments and editorial decision-making,” NAB wrote in July. “To the degree that the FCC needs to better understand how individuals react to the news and information available to them, the Research Design’s traditional approach to content analysis, as augmented by a better-framed consumer survey, should suit the purpose.”
“NAB is specifically concerned that the Research Design would have the Commission tread into the constitutionally sensitive area of newsgathering and reporting when the agency itself has taken pains for decades to avoid doing so.”
The FCC will also be probing media such as internet sites and newspapers, over which it has no oversight. The FCC’s justification is that it has a mandate to ensure overall news environments are adequate for consumers who are at risk of being exposed to too few points of view – a questionable proposition in 2013.
To a large degree, the Commission claims to be trying to solve a problem that has disappeared since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. At that time, activists were concerned about excessive “concentration” of media ownership, a concern reflected in SSI’s occult vocabulary of “underserved populations,” “diverse neighborhoods/communities” and “media ecologies.”
While the argument that media were becoming more concentrated was hard to make even in 1996, it has proven spectacularly wrong in the years since, thanks to an explosion of new media, delivery channels and social platforms that have broken the already shaky hold of print and broadcast news. While the FCC initially put in place a biennial review of media ownership, this was downgraded to a quadrennial review in 2002. The number of outside filings for the quadrennial reviews has been steadily declining, suggesting that even media activists are losing interest in this issue.
The CIN media content survey, which has attracted little attention, is intended as an add-on to the 2014 quadrennial report. In its announcement of the survey [pdf], FCC said it was necessary to “ensure that the critical informational needs of Americans are being met and … advance the goal of diversity, including the promotion of greater women and minority participation in media.”
The Commission has not so far addressed the potential chilling effect of a government interrogation of news producers, nor the potential for abuse of the survey and the information it gathers.
In the last paragraph of a press release on an unrelated topic, the FCC announced last week that it had completed the comment period for the CIN survey and would begin field testing it in one market.
The FCC did not respond to requests for comment.
Contacted in person at an event Tuesday, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel referred The Daily Caller to a legal advisor to “figure out what the questions are,” without listening to any of the questions. The legal advisor referred The Daily Caller’s questions to another FCC official who did not respond.
The venture capital firm of Tom Wheeler, President Obama’s pick for FCC chairman, referred The Daily Caller to the White House’s press office, which did not respond to requests for comment.
Wheeler was unanimously confirmed by the Senate late Tuesday. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz had placed a hold on Wheeler’s nomination over concerns that FCC might impose requirements of the failed DISCLOSE Act, an attempt to legislate around the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision. Cruz announced Tuesday evening that he had withdrawn the hold after a meeting at which Wheeler assured him imposing such regulations was “not a priority.”
Wheeler’s view on the CIN survey is not known. Several Commission watchers told The Daily Caller the FCC is waiting for a new chairman to begin work on the 2014 quadrennial review and the CIN survey.