Firm tapped for FCC media study has background in social ‘welfare,’ health – not media

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To conduct what critics are calling an intrusive examination of newsrooms across America, the Federal Communications Commission tapped a Beltway firm whose philosophy aligned neatly with the study's goals -- which were to promote "diversity" in the newsroom, presumably in terms of who is hired and what is covered.

Those goals sound innocuous enough, but the study has run into a buzz saw of criticism on Capitol Hill as lawmakers question whether it could be used to pressure media outlets into changing their coverage. The criticism led the FCC on Friday to significantly back off the review.

The company, however, tapped to lead the next phase of that study has little in its background pertaining to the media. The Maryland-based company, Social Solutions International, founded in 2005, specializes in areas like maternal health, HIV/AIDS, immigrant health and substance abuse.

The company's link to the FCC study appears to be Social Solutions' focus on diversity and social issues, and its background in research. The FCC last year originally touted the study as an effort to look at "barriers to participation" and follow up on how minority and low-income communities are lagging when it comes to "information needs." The FCC was also looking to promote greater women and minority participation in the media.

The company, in its online profile, stresses the values of "diversity" and "social responsibility" and says in its mission statement that its goal is to "improve the welfare of underserved populations worldwide."

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    It is also listed as a "small disadvantaged business" -- a designation, which comes with various forms of assistance, given to firms managed by "socially and economically disadvantaged" individuals.

    The company also has a thorough background in research and evaluation, which would be needed for any study of this kind. The president, Harvard-educated Susanna Nemes, cites substance abuse and HIV as her primary areas of expertise, and has worked on health projects around the world.

    How the company planned to go about studying the media, though, is what generated controversy, including complaints from at least one Republican member of the FCC.

    The original solicitation for a related review indeed noted it was being undertaken "to assess whether government action is needed to ensure that the information needs of all Americans are being addressed."

    Social Solutions' subsequent April 2013 proposal called for interviewing those in the media about issues like "perceived station bias" and "perceived responsiveness to underserved populations." The proposed questions for these interviews 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.

    The FCC is now taking a second look at how the study might be conducted. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently pledged to "adapt the study" in response to concerns. His office pledged Friday that any future review would not seek to interview those in the newsroom.

    "It is all about controlling content," Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said earlier Friday.

    Commissioner Ajit Pai, who raised several concerns about the plan, told Fox News earlier that Wheeler has told the contractor "to remove questions from the study relating to news philosophy and editorial judgment and I think that's a positive step."

    House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee said in December that the study could cost taxpayers $900,000.

    Social Solutions is a relatively new player in the world of high-dollar federal contracts. It had a handful of Defense Department contracts between 2006 and 2009, but has gotten most of its work with Washington since 2010. Federal records show the company has more than $9 million in contracts with the Department of Health and Human Services. The total value of its federal contracts since 2006 is $21.4 million.

    Projects have included training on "motivational interviewing" for members of the U.S. Air Force, as well as work on domestic violence and post-partum depression with the Maternal and Child Health Bureau.'s Judson Berger contributed to this report.