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March 14, 2014

JEFFREY McCALL: FCC has more explaining to do to media, TV viewers

Agency halts meddling in free expression

The sense­less study it planned that would have had researchers snooping into the content decisions made in local broadcast newsrooms has been shelved by the Federal Communications Commission. While that is nice to know, the American public now needs to hear what Paul Harvey would have described as “the rest of the story.”

First, it is worth noting this planned intrusion into television newsrooms didn’t just come out of the blue; it had been in the works for almost two years. The public alarm was only sounded recently by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who went rogue and blasted his own commission with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. Long before that, however, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn signaled the forthcoming Critical Information Needs (CIN) study. She gave a speech in June 2012 in which she called for collecting such data, urging the FCC to “devote more attention to meeting the critical information needs of all Americans by breaking down barriers.”

The research firm contracted to conduct the study, Social Solutions International, held a meeting in September 2012 with FCC representatives to devise the research plan, which was delivered to the FCC last April. The FCC then issued a public notice of the upcoming study in November. That prompted a protest letter from Congressman Fred Upton, chair of the House Commerce Committee. Upton, along with 15 cosigners, urged newly installed FCC Chair Tom Wheeler to ditch the study, but with no effect. It wasn’t until Pai’s Wall Street Journal blast that the media and public got engaged.

The underlying FCC motivation for studying newsroom practices has little to do with information needs, and everything to do with who owns the media. The CIN study was merely camouflage for finding a way to keep huge media corporations from becoming huger. FCC commissioners, such as Clyburn and former chair Julius Genachowski, have long been concerned big media corporations prevent a diversity of ownership, particularly among women and minorities. While arguments can be made for wanting diverse ownership in media, the FCC has not yet found ones that can withstand legal challenges.

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