FCC Backs Off Study of Newsroom Editorial Practices [Updated]

GOP said study violated freedom of the press

UPDATE, Feb. 20: The Federal Communications Commission told GOP lawmakers that the agency has "no intention" of interfering in the editorial decision-making of broadcast stations and newspapers.

In a letter released today, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler confirmed that the agency is working on revisions to the Critical Information Needs Study, which as part of its conclusions called for researchers to enter newsrooms and inquire about how editorial decisions were made.

"The commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters by way of this research design, any resulting study, or through any other means," Wheeler wrote.

But what Wheeler didn't say in his letter is that it would drop the controversial study that had its researchers question the decisions of journalists, producers and other news staff, leaving lawmakers less than fully satisfied. He did, however, concede that modifications might be necessary.

"We are pleased to see chairman Wheeler recognizes the gravity of our concerns and has accordingly made progress toward ensuring that First Amendment protections remain in place for journalists," said Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the commerce committee and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee. "Before moving forward, however, it is imperative that the FCC ensure that any study, with any agents on its behalf, stays out of newsrooms."

Wheeler said he would remove the controversial newsroom questions, and get back to the lawmakers because any revisions "will require cost reassessments." 

The Federal Communications Commission is quietly changing course on a controversial study after parts of the methodology were roundly criticized by GOP lawmakers and commissioner Ajit Pai for encroaching into editorial decisions and content at TV stations.

The Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs, which aimed to help the commission figure out how to lower entry barriers for minorities in broadcasting, may now be on hold. At the very least, the controversial sections of the study will be revisited under new chairman Tom Wheeler and incorporated into a new draft.

Regardless of the study's intent, it's hard to fathom why the FCC sent its minions into newsrooms of the stations it licenses and ask questions about how stations exercise their First Amendment right.

"The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories," wrote Pai in a Wall Street Journal op ed earlier this week. As Pai described it, the FCC would be sending in researchers to "grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run."

GOP leadership on the House commerce committee, which accused the FCC of using to the study as a veiled attempt to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, were expecting answers to their letter on Jan. 10. Sources said that the FCC asked for more time to respond.

An FCC representative said the agency "has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make. We're closely reviewing the proposed research design to determine if an alternative approach is merited."

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