A retreat from a “Big Brother-ish effort” to thrust the federal government into newsrooms?

 

By Dave Andrusko

HowardKurtzMedia critic Howard Kurtz describes it as a “Big Brother-ish effort by the Federal Communications Commission.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Ajit Pai, one of the FEC commissioners, characterized it as an “initiative to thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country.”

Both are referring to an FCC initiative adopted last May and about to be field-tested this spring in South Carolina, called the “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” or CIN. This would be worrisome regardless of whose idea it was originally. In his Friday daily report, Gary Bauer said that CIN is the brainchild of Mignon Clyburn, who is the daughter of House Assistant Democratic Leader Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, not exactly the world’s most non-partisan source.

What’s this “study” about? According to Pai, the FCC says CIN’s purpose

“is to ferret out information from television and radio broadcasters about ‘the process by which stories are selected’ and how often stations cover ‘critical information needs,’ along with ‘perceived station bias’ and ‘perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.’

“How does the FCC plan to dig up all that information? First, the agency selected eight categories of ‘critical information’ such as the ‘environment’ and ‘economic opportunities,’ that it believes local newscasters should cover. 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.”

Referring to this “perceived station bias,” Kurtz writes indignantly

“Are you kidding me? Government bureaucrats are going to decide whether a newsroom is being fair?

“Keep in mind that the commission has the power to renew or reject broadcast television licenses. During Watergate, Richard Nixon’s FCC challenged two TV licenses of stations owned by the Washington Post. So mere information gathering can become a little more serious, given that enormous clout.”

In response to criticism, there have been assurances that this is just neutral fact-finding. Then, late this afternoon, according to broadcastingcable.com, the FCC posted a statement on its website which included that

“To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, S.C. pilot study. The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final. Any subsequent market studies conducted by the FCC, if determined necessary, will not seek participation from or include questions for media owners, news directors or reporters.”

Broadcastingcable.com writes that Pai wrote in response that he “welcome[d] today’s announcement that the FCC has suspended its ‘Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,’ or CIN study. This study would have thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country, somewhere it just doesn’t belong.” Pai added

“The Commission has now recognized that no study by the federal government, now or in the future, should involve asking questions to media owners, news directors, or reporters about their practices. This is an important victory for the First Amendment. And it would not have been possible without the American people making their voices heard. I will remain vigilant that any future initiatives not infringe on our constitutional freedoms.”

We will see in due course whether this was a real pull-back, or just a temporary “retreat.”

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