CHARLESTON, SC — As the Federal Communications Commission revamps a controversial study that has been slammed by critics as an inappropriate government intrusion into news media, broadcast newsrooms in its test market of Columbia, SC, still haven’t heard directly from the agency about its plan.
At issue is the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs (CIN), initiated last year under acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon L. Clyburn. The study aims to gauge news consumers’ access to “critical information” in six local markets, along with any negative impact from “barriers to entry” facing news producers in those markets. The commission chose Columbia as the test market in November because of its medium size, racial and ethnic diversity, and the nearby journalism school at the University of South Carolina.
According to a a research design document dated April 2013, parts of the study would involve taking a census of newspaper, radio, broadcast, and web coverage in a given market, along with surveying and interviewing local residents about their “critical information needs.”
But it’s another part of the study that has prompted critics to invoke images of FCC officials parachuting into local newsrooms to influence coverage decisions. The design calls for the FCC to interview management and staff at broadcast outlets in order
to ascertain the process by which stories are selected, station priorities (for content, production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias, perceived percent of news dedicated to each of the eight CINs, and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.
Suggested questions directed to station managers in the voluntary interviews include, “What is the news philosophy of the station?” and “How much does community input influence news coverage decisions?”
One of the FCC’s own members, Ajit Pai, who was appointed in 2012 by President Obama, panned the study in a recent Wall-Street Journal op-ed. That followed a December letter sent by 16 congressional Republicans to the new chairman, Tom Wheeler, urging him to stop what they called an “attempt to engage the FCC as the ‘news police.’”
The FCC is now responding to concerns by adjusting the study’s design under the direction of Wheeler, who became chairman in November. An FCC spokesman told CJR, “The Commission has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make. We reviewed the research design carefully and plan to adapt the study where appropriate.” The course change was reported last week by AdWeek and National Journal.
Even as the controversy around the study design unfolds, stations in Columbia have heard nothing directly from the FCC—not surprising, because the study design and required approval from the federal Office of Management and Budget haven’t been finalized yet. In December Richard O’Dell, president and general manager of the CBS affiliate WLTX, told me he’d read about the CIN in media reports but hadn’t heard from anyone at the commission. That’s still the case two months later. “Absolutely nothing,” he wrote in an email on Friday.
Donita Todd, station manager of Columbia’s NBC affiliate WIS, had a similar story. “All I know is that they have received strong push-back from NAB (the National Association of Broadcasters), station group owners, and dissension within the FCC commissioners themselves,” she told me.
In their critique of the study, Republicans in Congress evoked the Fairness Doctrine, a defunct mandate that required FCC-regulated entities to offer contrasting viewpoints in coverage of important controversial issues. The FCC stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, though some conservative critics and politicians regularly warn of its revival. The FCC’s Pai offered the same warning in his WSJ op-ed, writing that “proponents of newsroom policing” are “not deterred,” and that the new study is “a first step down the same dangerous path.”
Steven Waldman, a senior advisor to former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski (and a contributor to CJR), told me in December that concerns that the planned study amounts to “Fairness Doctrine 2.0” were “completely and utterly made up.”
Waldman was the chief author of a 2011 FCC report looking at the information needs of communities and operations of the news media. The 464-page report did make reference to the Fairness Doctrine—by calling on the FCC to eliminate its last vestiges, as Genachowski did in 2011.
Another possible explanation for the study’s initial design and its focus on underserved populations and “barriers to entry” might be the ongoing wave of consolidation in local television—for which watchdog groups have faulted the FCC—and a decline in African American ownership of broadcast stations. The commission is also required to periodically report to Congress on proposals to reduce barriers to entry in the news industry.
Still, if the FCC were to actually question local broadcasters about their “news philosophy,” it likely would encounter more pushback—and not just from the broadcasters.
“I’m not crazy about the federal government questioning reporters and editors about their news judgments,” said Bill Rogers, director of the South Carolina Press Association, which represents the state’s daily and weekly newspapers.
Rogers added: “What is the relevance of news decisions as to whether small businesses can enter the broadcast industry? Viewers evaluate coverage for content and fairness, and the marketplace responds accordingly.”
For the time being, broadcasters in South Carolina are waiting to see what they ultimately hear from the FCC, once the study design is finalized. As WLTX’s O’Dell put it to me: “This is a strange one.”