On Feb. 10 Federal Communications Commission member Ajit Pai wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal.
Pai was nominated for a Republican Party position on the FCC by President Barack Obama. Confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate in May 2012, he was sworn in that same month.
His opinion piece was troubling to me because he was writing about a study the FCC has commissioned.
The purpose of the study is to determine whether TV and radio stations and newspapers are meeting the “critical information needs” of the public with special emphasis on vulnerable or disadvantaged populations.
Seems a worthy goal, but if you read the methodology of the study, it gets a little weird – and disconcerting.
Here’s a list of questions the survey poses based on employment level.
Station Owners,
Managers or HR
• What is the news philosophy of the station?
• Who is your target audience?
• How do you define critical information that the community needs?
• How do you ensure the community gets this critical information?
• How much does community input influence news coverage decisions?
• What are the demographics of the news management staff ?
• What are the demographics of the on-air staff?
• What are the demographics of the news production staff?
Corporate, General Managers, News Directors, Editors, etc
• What is the news philosophy of the station?
• Who else in your market provides news?
• Who are your main competitors?
• How much news does your station (stations) air every day?
• Is the news produced in-house or is it provided by an outside source?
• Do you employ news people?
• How many reporters and editors do you employ?
• Do you have any reporters or editors assigned to topic “beats”? If so, how many and what are the beats?
• Who decides which stories are covered?
• How much influence do reporters and anchors have in deciding which stories to cover?
• How much does community input influence news coverage decisions?
• How do you define critical information that the community needs?
• How do you ensure the community gets this critical information?
On-Air Staff (Reporters, Anchors)
• What is the news philosophy of the station?
• How much news does your station air every day?
• Who decides which stories are covered?
• How much influence do you have in deciding which stories to cover?
• Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers (viewers, listeners, readers) that was rejected by management?
• If so, can you give an example?
• What was the reason given for the decision?
• Why do you disagree?
The project is reportedly due to kick off this spring in Columbia, S.C. Since the study is only looking at a limited number of media properties, it’s unlikely that the survey takers will wind up in Warsaw.
It is only fair to point out that taking the survey is voluntary, but if you’re a broadcaster, do you really want to poke the FCC in they eye? They do hold your license, after all.
On the face of it, it seems rather mundane, but it has the potential to be rather insidious or sinister.
Frankly, the fact that the government, via the FCC, is trying to determine whether media are meeting the “critical information needs” of the public is troubling to me on the face of it.
They literally want to monitor what news organizations are producing to determine what is covered and how it is covered. Then they want to interview news people at all levels to find out why.
The FCC – in its own words – wants to uncover “the process by which stories are selected” and how often “critical information needs” are covered along with “perceived station bias” and “perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.”
This begs a few questions:
First of all, why does the FCC want to study newsrooms and the material produced in them in the first place?
Beyond that, what if the study finds that media in America are NOT meeting the critical information needs of the public?
Will the government then impose some sort of regulations to remedy this problem?
 To me, this is troubling stuff with significant First Amendment implications.
And given the Obama administration’s track record of using the IRS to hassle Tea Party types and the FBI to secretly seize phone records or Associated Press reporters, it’s not like President Obama can say, “Just trust us.”
More than likely, the study would be used as ammunition to reintroduce some sort of Fairness Doctrine.
The Fairness Doctrine was a policy of the FCC initially passed in 1949. It required broadcasters to present both sides of controversial issues.
It was eliminated in 1987.
Of course, this was just about the time that talk radio blossomed into one of the most-listened-to forms of radio in history.
And the vast majority of talk radio programs are manned by conservative talk show hosts.
There’s a reason for that.
Apparently no one wants to listen to liberal talk radio. It’s been tried. It can’t muster enough of an audience to support itself. Air America is the premiere example.
So if talk radio broadcasters are mandated once again to devote significant airtime to “contrasting viewpoints,” away go listeners and revenue.
Gee, who would want something like that to happen, I wonder?
I’ll let FCC commissioner Pai wrap this up for me with an excerpt from his Wall Street Journal op-ed piece.
This is not the first time the agency has meddled in news coverage. Before Critical Information Needs, there was the FCC's now-defunct Fairness Doctrine, which began in 1949 and required equal time for contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues. Though the Fairness Doctrine ostensibly aimed to increase the diversity of thought on the airwaves, many stations simply chose to ignore controversial topics altogether, rather than air unwanted content that might cause listeners to change the channel.
The Fairness Doctrine was controversial and led to lawsuits throughout the 1960s and '70s that argued it infringed upon the freedom of the press. The FCC finally stopped enforcing the policy in 1987, acknowledging that it did not serve the public interest. In 2011 the agency officially took it off the books. But the demise of the Fairness Doctrine has not deterred proponents of newsroom policing, and the (critical information needs) study is a first step down the same dangerous path.