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FCC backs off newsroom survey plan

The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday that it was putting on hold a controversial study of American newsrooms, after complaints from Republican lawmakers and media groups that the project was too intrusive. 

FCC spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said Chairman Tom Wheeler agreed with critics that some of the study's proposed questions for reporters and news directors "overstepped the bounds of what is required." 

The agency announced that a proposed pilot study in South Carolina will now be shelved, at least until a "new study design" is finalized. But the agency made clear that this and any future studies will not involve interviews with "media owners, news directors or reporters." 

Commissioner Ajit Pai, who was one of the staunchest critics of the proposal, heralded the decision Friday as an acknowledgement that government-backed researchers would not be dispatched into newsrooms, as feared.   

"This study would have thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country, somewhere it just doesn't belong," he said in a statement. "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." 

He added: "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." 

The Radio and Television News Directors Association took a more cautious view of the announcement. 

"RTDNA views this as an important admission by the FCC that questions regarding editorial policies and practices are off-limits to the government," Director Mike Cavender said in a statement. "We are eager to see the revised study to insure there aren't topics or questions that could be construed as a 'back door' attempt to gather the same type of information." 

Amid the controversy, Wheeler had already told lawmakers the commission had "no intention" of regulating reporters' speech. He also directed that the controversial questions be removed from the survey entirely. 

The initial proposal for the study called for looking into issues like "perceived station bias" and "perceived responsiveness to underserved populations." The proposed questions for the interviews with members of the media raised alarm bells, including questions about "news philosophy" and how much community input goes into story selection and whether reporters ever had "a story with critical information" rejected by management. 

Gilson said Friday that, "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." 

However, she added: "Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America's newsrooms is false. The FCC looks forward to fulfilling its obligation to Congress to report on barriers to entry into the communications marketplace, and is currently revising its proposed study to achieve that goal." 

The contract for the study had gone to Maryland-based firm Social Solutions International, whose background largely focuses on public health and not media. Republican lawmakers first complained about the potential course of the study in December. Pai raised additional concerns in a Wall Street Journal column earlier this month.