The head of the Federal Communications Commission is trying to douse Republican accusations that his agency is trying to covertly police the editorial decisions of TV news.
In a letter to senior House Republicans released Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency "has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters."
Republicans have picked at an FCC study introduced last spring on "critical information needs" that is intended to examine barriers of entry into the news media industry for small businesses. The study's inquiry included questions such as: "What is the news philosophy of the station?" and "Who decides which stories are covered?"
The FCC is required by law to conduct such research studies, but the commission's critics say this one was an initial foray into an effort to regulate newsrooms' editorial decisions.
The questions the study asked, Republicans say, tread too close for comfort to the now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, a controversial federal policy that required radio and TV news to present opposing views of the news stories they covered. The policy was in effect from 1949 through 1987 and was formally wiped from the books in 2011.
But Wheeler insists that's not happening, defending the FCC study as a "tool intended to help the Commission consider effective, pro-competitive policies that would encourage new entrants," and told Republicans that the commission is revising the study to address their concerns.
Wheeler's assurances didn't go far enough for House Republicans, who urged the agency to "stay out of the newsroom" in a statement Thursday.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, called attention to the study in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last week, saying that the FCC study wants to "thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country."
Although participation is voluntary, Pai is concerned that stations will feel pressured to participate because they depend on the FCC for a broadcast license.
House Republicans shared similar concerns with Wheeler in December, calling the study a "Fairness Doctrine 2.0."
"The proposed design for the [Critical Information Needs] study shows a startling disregard for not only the bedrock constitutional principles that prevent government intrusion into the press and other news media, but also for the lessons learned by the Commission's experience with the Fairness Doctrine," Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote.
UPDATE: Chairman Tom Wheeler has directed that all questions about news philosophy and editorial judgement be removed from the draft study. "Any suggestion the Commission intends to regulate the speech of news media is false," FCC spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said Friday. A revised study will be released within the next few weeks.
FURTHER UPDATE: The FCC announced Friday that it will no longer ask the media or journalists to participate in its study, a move that was welcomed by Pai. The FCC will still proceed with the second part of the controversial study–designed by the research firm Social Solutions International–that aims to understand the "critical information needs" of communities. This will involve polling a sampling of residents about how they consume the news in Columbia, S.C., the pilot location for the study.