FCC Chief: We’re Not Going to Police Your Newsroom

Tom Wheeler wants to assuage GOP concerns that the agency wants to meddle with editorial decisions.

US-media-Fox An electronic news ticker above a sign at the Fox News Channel television studios in the parent News Corporation building, 05 October 2006, in New York. Fox News celebrates 10 years on the air, but When Fox News burst onto the scene, few thought the no-nonsense network would go on to become the top-rated cable news channel in the US. But one decade on, the network that prides itself on its 'fair and balanced' reporting easily leads its rivals in audience ratings as it continues to shake up the cable news industry and brushes off critics who label the channel a mouthpiece for conservatives and the Republican Party.
National Journal
Laura Ryan
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Laura Ryan
Feb. 20, 2014, 12:43 p.m.

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. 

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