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Critics want FCC media study thrown on ‘trash heap,’ skeptical of changes

Critics of a proposed Federal Communications Commission study that would send researchers into newsrooms across America say the new chairman's vow to tweak the plan doesn't go far enough -- with one leading media group calling on the agency to scrap the study entirely. 

"Where it really needs to go is onto the trash heap," Mike Cavender, director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, said in a statement. 

The FCC drew the ire of free-press advocates and lawmakers after proposing a "study of critical information needs," which one dissenting commissioner said would let researchers "grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run." 

GOP lawmakers warned the program essentially would become the "Fairness Doctrine 2.0," in reference to a long-abandoned policy requiring broadcasters to provide what was deemed balanced coverage of major issues. 

After being pressed by Republican lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a Feb. 14 letter that his agency "has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters" through this study. 

Wheeler pledged to work with the contractor to "adapt the study" in response to concerns that have been raised. 

Republicans on Thursday praised Wheeler for recognizing "the gravity of our concerns" -- but urged him to go further. 

"Before moving forward, however, it is imperative that the FCC ensure that any study, with any agents acting on its behalf, stays out of newsrooms," committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said in a statement. 

"The courts have rightfully struck down the Fairness Doctrine, and any attempt to revive it, through study or any other means, should not be attempted by the FCC or any other government agency." 

Cavender was unsparing in his criticism of what he called an "ill-conceived study." He said that regardless of the agency's motives, "even the concept of a study like this is enough to chill every journalist and every station which prides itself on journalistic independence. 

"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," he said. "... 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." 

One agency commissioner, Ajit Pai, originally raised concerns about the review in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. 

The research would include questions about the process by which stories are selected and on how often stations cover "critical information needs" and would be posed through voluntary surveys. 

However, Pai warned that those inquiries "may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore. They would be out of business without an FCC license."   

The new project also would include newspaper and Internet content and is expected to start this spring with a field test in Columbia, S.C.