Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler denied that the agency is trying to regulate the news coverage of media organizations with a new study, which congressional Republicans and another FCC commissioner have sharply criticized.
The agency’s new Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs, or “CIN” study, aims to assess how the news media covers “critical information” by sending FCC regulators into the offices of major television, newspaper, and internet media outlets across the country.
Congressional Republicans sent a letter to the agency expressing their concern over the study’s potential to regulate the freedom of the press — a sentiment shared by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who expressed his concern in a Wall Street Journal editorial last week, and has since taken to numerous media outlets, including The Daily Caller, to reinforce his warning of the potential dangers the study poses to the free press.
According to Pai, it’s “inappropriate” for the government “to inject itself into” the role of regulating media, which Pai warned could pose even a subtle influence on coverage by creating a list of topics the government deems “critical,” and judging news outlets based on this criteria. Pai told The Daily Caller the study poses 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.
Wheeler responded to those concerns in a letter to congressional Republicans late last week, in which he said the study is not an attempt to force news organizations into changing their coverage.
“The Commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters by way of this Research Design, any resulting study, or through any other means,” Wheeler wrote. “Your letter and the opportunity for public review surfaced a number of issues and modification of the Research Design may be necessary.”
According to Wheeler, the purpose of the study is 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.
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 the letter that such jurisdiction would fall under the proprietary control of Congress first. The study does not clarify how assessing the coverage topics of news organizations would reveal industry barriers outside of a vague allusion to “diversity.”
“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,” Wheeler said.