GOP commissioner fights federal media-inspection plan

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Democratic appointees at the Federal Communications Commission are redrafting  a campaign to nudge media coverage of political issues in a direction they favor, says Ajit Pai, a GOP appointee in the commission’s five-seat board.

The big-government project, dubbed the “CIN,” or the “critical information needs” study, would pressure managers at federally licensed TV stations and even at unregulated newspapers to focus on topics deemed important by government, FCC Commissioner Pai told The Daily Caller.

The plan, which has been in the works since last year, is being delayed and perhaps revised amid a wave of opposition from GOP legislators and the public, Pai said Feb. 21.

But Democrats will decide the next step because they are a majority of the five-seat FCC commission, which includes two members nominated by Republican legislators. The commission regulates, to some extent, radio and TV broadcasters, as well as telephone and cable TV companies.

One of the Democratic commissioners is Mignon Clyburn, the daughter of South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a top leader in the Democratic caucus. The plan was slated to start with a federal inspection of media outlets in South Carolina this year.

Pai is rallying public opposition to the plan, and this week triggered a wave of skeptical media coverage.

But ABC, CBS and NBC, The New York Times have been  silent about the attempted manipulation of the media, he said. The Washington Post published an article Feb. 20.

New outlets such as Fox, Drudge and The Daily Caller are focusing attention on the issue, along with the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, he said.

These new media outlets have changed politics in D.C. because they’ve dismantled the old media establishment’s ability to create or muffle controversies, he said. “It’s been blown to smithereens, thanks to you for covering these issues,” he told TheDC.

There’s no need for a big-government study of what information should be given to voters, he said. “The media marketplace today is more competitive than ever, and news outlets are deciding for themselves what categories of information people need, and if they choose unwisely, then the market will penalize them,” Pai said.

“Conversely, if they’re providing information that people want, they’ll get more subscribers, listeners or viewers, and for the government to inject itself into that role is simply inappropriate,” added Pai, a Kansas-born lawyer and the son of two immigrant Indian doctors.

Pai worked for Verizon and in Congress before being hired as lawyer at the FCC. He’s been a FCC commissioner since May 2012.

The CIN study emerged from the FCC’s bureaucracy in 2013, after the failure of previous efforts to nudge media coverage, Pai said.

Those prior efforts used the pretexts of”fairness” or “diversity” to pressure the owners and managers of TV networks — which must get their FCC licenses renewed periodically — to skew coverage.

The new CIN study claimed that the government should investigate the media to see if it is meeting people’s “critical information needs.”

The plan creates a government-sponsored investigative team to quiz journalists and managers about their editorial priorities and decisions. But the study’s design betrays a covert focus on issues and priorities deemed important by progressives.

“The agency selected eight categories of ‘critical information’ such as the ‘environment’ and ‘economic opportunities,’ that it believes local newscasters should cover… [and] it plans to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their ‘news philosophy’ and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information,” Pai wrote in a Feb. 10 Wall Street Journal article.

The eight sectors of media coverage deemed critical by the FCC are emergencies and risks, civic and political information, health and welfare, education, the environment, plus transportation and economic opportunities

“These eight categories of information were chosen for some reason… [but] I don’t want to speculate on the motivation,” said Pai, who has one vote on the FCC’s five-person board.

The existence of the survey creates political pressure on media managers, if only because the FCC has the power to deny broadcasters’ license renewals, Pai said. “If management knows that the FCC is sending researchers to ask editors or reporters how… management is telling you what stories to cover, the message to management will be — or perceived to be — the FCC wants you to focus on these eight categories,” Pai said.

“On stories about the environment, they want to you to focus on air and water quality, [and on] access to parks and recreation,” he said.

But those are government’s priorities, not readers’ priorities, he said. For example, many readers use the media to keep up with sports, he said.

Others readers want information about tax increases and gun rights, immigration fraud and government waste, regulation of property or political corruption, progressive stigma of conservatives in schools and colleges or police abuse. But those categories are not highlighted on the list of eight “critical information needs.”

In previous years, the FCC  used other excuses to shape media coverage, Pai told TheDC. This CIN effort seems new, but “the essential motivation is the same…. to either directly or indirectly nudge… news coverage in a certain direction.”

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