Feb 22, 2014 2:57 PM GMT
The Federal Communications Commission, under intense fire this week for proposing to install government agents in radio, television and even newspaper newsrooms to look at how editorial decisions are made, abruptly backed away from the plan today.
The confirmation was from Shannon Gilson, a spokeswoman for the federal agency. She said the plan was part of the FCC’s overall look at access to the media marketplace.
“Last summer, the proposed study was put out for public comment and one pilot to test the study design in a single marketplace – Columbia, S.C. – was planned. However, in the course of FCC review and public comment, concerns were raised that some of the questions may not have been appropriate. Chairman Wheeler agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required. Last week, Chairman Wheeler informed lawmakers that that commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study. Yesterday, the chairman directed that those questions be removed entirely,” she said.
“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,” Gilson said.
Chairman Tom Wheeler said in an earlier statement that the agency “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.”
He said the goal of the plan was to help identify “market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications services…”
“This is a significant victory for the First Amendment and the freedom of the press,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice. His organization had started an online petition for people outraged by the idea of government newsroom monitors. Tens of thousands responded.
“The American people spoke out and sent a persuasive message to the Obama administration: the federal government has no business interfering in the news business – putting monitors in newsrooms in an attempt to control the media’s message. By shutting down this proposal, the FCC took the only action it could. We will now remain vigilant to ensure that the FCC follows through on its pledge to refrain from putting monitors in America’s newsrooms,” Sekulow said.
The idea came to light through the alarm of one of the FCC commissioners, who wrote a commentary about the idea.
Whether it is a complete victory, however, remains to be seen. Gilson affirmed that the agency “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.”
That caught the attention of Tim Cavanaugh at National Review.
“A revised version of the survey could raise new concerns: that it will trade its now-kiboshed news questions for a demographic survey that might justify new race-based media ownership rulemaking,” he suggested.
The uproar that rattled newsrooms was the idea that FCC representatives would have interrogated newsroom staffers about how they make coverage decisions and select, or not, story ideas.
A pilot program was to have been conducted in Columbia, S.C., but the Review reported that WLTX General Manager Rich O’Dell in Columbia that, “There’s been no official contact by anybody at the FCC or anywhere else.”
Members of Congress, when they discovered that the FCC was working on defining “Critical Information Needs” in connection with the review, had objected. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and others warned that such moves would chill the freedom of the press.
It was commissioner Ajit Pai who had editorialized about the plan, alerting the public to the strategy being pursued.
After the commission’s change of heart, he told Fox News, “This study would have thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country, somewhere it just doesn’t belong. 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 said. “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.”
Fox reported the Radio and Television News Directors Association was happy, but cautious.
“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,” organization Director Mike Cavender said in a statement.
Gilson said the FCC still has the legal requirement to “report to Congress every three years on the barriers that may prevent entrepreneurs and small business from competing in the media marketplace, and pursue policies to eliminate those barriers.”
WND Editor and Founder Joseph Farah put the issue into perspective by noting that the FCC has the power to not renew stations’ licenses. And he noted the FCC wanted to expand its intervention to newspapers.
“Keep in mind, the FCC has never had any regulatory authority or jurisdiction in print journalism. That newspaper publishers and editors would even consider such a diabolical effort by the state to insinuate itself into First Amendment-protected institutions is astonishing to say the least.”
Sekulow’s organization had launched the online petition for people to oppose the idea, and collected tens of thousands of names in just a day or two.
For those understanding the back story, the move wasn’t even really much of a surprise, however.
The intent of the study can perhaps be divined by the writings of Mark Lloyd, who served as FCC’s associate general counsel and chief diversity officer from 2009-2012. Lloyd was also a senior fellow at the heavily influential Center for American Progress, or CAP, and served as a consultant to George Soros’ Open Society Institute.
Lloyd co-authored a 2007 CAP study titled “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio.” In that study, which was reviewed by WND earlier, it recommended radio station “ownership diversity,” citing data claiming stations “owned by women, minorities, or local owners are statistically less likely to air conservative hosts or shows.”
Lloyd wrote that all radio stations should be required to “provide information on how the station serves the public interest in a variety of areas.”
The CAP report specifically called on the FCC to mandate all radio broadcast licensees “to regularly show that they are operating on behalf of the public interest and provide public documentation and viewing of how they are meeting these obligations.”
Lloyd and co-authors lamented the FCC “renews broadcast licensees with a postcard renewal, and while it once promised random audits of stations it has never conducted a single audit.”
In a follow up to the CAP report, Lloyd penned a 2007 article at CAP’s website titled “Forget the Fairness Doctrine.”
In the piece, Lloyd claimed that Citadel Broadcasting, then the owner of major U.S. radio stations, “refuses” to air the progressive Ed Shultz radio show. Lloyd offered no evidence that Citadel made the decision based on politics rather than Shultz’s low ratings.
Lloyd called for new “ownership rules that we think will create greater local diversity of programming, news, and commentary.”
“And we call for more localism by putting