An ill-conceived and dangerous idea

February 19, 2014 01:00

Update: Chairman Wheeler has ordered questions about news philosophy and editorial judgment removed from the study.

By Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director  

The FCC’s recent decision to “review and adapt” a controversial plan to study the “information needs” of communities doesn’t go nearly far enough. Where it really needs to go is onto the trash heap!

This ill-conceived study, bureaucratically entitled the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs, was first put forth by then-acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn last year and now continued under new Chairman Thomas Wheeler. The study is supposed to assess news consumer’s ability to receive “critical information” in several local test markets. It would include information about newspaper, radio, TV and web coverage in these test markets along with surveying local residents about their “critical information needs.”

The survey design would have FCC staff interviewing management and staff at local broadcast outlets, asking questions like “what’s the news philosophy of the station” and how the community influences its news coverage.

Come on! Why does the FCC need this information and what possible use can it be to the regulatory body that impacts every broadcast station in this country? We think it’s clearly an overreach by the Commission.

And that’s what Congressional Republicans think, too. In December, 16 of them sent Wheeler a letter asking him to stop what they termed an “attempt to engage the FCC as the ‘news police’.”  Some have even conjured up visions of a Commission using the study as the beginning of an effort to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine.

Whatever the motives are, even the concept of a study like this is enough to chill every journalist and every station which prides itself on journalistic independence. 

In a statement in the midst of the firestorm, the FCC said the agency “has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make.”  So then why does the Commission want to collect this information?

The Columbia Journalism Review cited (a) “possible explanation for the study’s initial design and its focus on underserved populations and ‘barriers to entry’ might be the ongoing wave of consolidation in local television—for which watchdogs have faulted the FCC—and a decline in African American ownership of broadcast stations.” For Wheeler’s part, he’s already indicated his interest in cracking down on joint sharing agreements which have become quite popular among broadcast groups in recent years.

Regardless of the underlying motives for this study, the Commission should be astute enough to realize the obvious flaws in this particular approach and, even more importantly, the negative image it creates by pushing forward with such an idea. American news consumers—and the media itself—need to know our government truly does believe in the First Amendment!

The FCC should scrap the entire idea and leave any concerns about news coverage to the professionals in the newsroom—not the regulators in Washington.

RTDNA works to keep you informed of  important regulatory and legislative issues like this one and we’ll report on future developments as they occur.

Fox News reported on the issue, examining the FCC's stated goals and quoting RTDNA: