« WSAU Opinion Blog

OPINION - FCC in our newsrooms, Part 2

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) In today’s blog I have an update on the FCC’s plan to monitor newsrooms and study the way the news is gathered.

If you’re going to make a bet on the arrogance of federal regulators, always take the “over”. Only the most tone-deaf person at the F.C.C. could not have heard the backlash over the proposed ‘Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs’. But Commissioner Mignon Clyburn barely acknowledges anything's amiss. She was the acting chairwoman when the study was proposed.

Earlier this week she spoke at a Media Institute symposium and defended the study. She said it was meant to help the Commission “make a sound regulatory decision.” And she goes on to say the study would “never, ever, ever be a part of any effort to chill speech.“  It’s amazing that someone who regulates the industry that I work in could be so obtuse.

Let’s first look what the study was supposed to accomplish. The FCC’s stated goal was to examine barriers to minority and female ownership of radio and TV stations. That is a legitimate area for regulation – although it is also misguided. The biggest change in the media ownership landscape in the last 10 to 15 years is an increase in corporate ownership and less mom-and-pop private broadcasters. Clear Channel, Cumulus and Cox have assembled portfolios of hundreds of stations. And since many of these corporations are publicly traded companies, the opportunities for minorities to have an ownership stake in mass media have never been greater. A secondary issue might be how much influence minorities have over what’s heard on-air. But content of broadcasts, aside from profanity, falls under the license holders’ free speech rights.

So the FCC proposes to study mass media ownership by sending government researchers into newsrooms, to literally be over the shoulder of reporters as the news is gathered. The two are completely unrelated. Suppose we monitor the sex habits of teenagers because we’re interested in studying the mating habits of giraffes? Or the SAT scores of high schoolers for links to why NASA’s new spacesuits don’t work? The connection is convoluted and the methods are invasive.

Two FCC commissioners have spoken out publicly against the study.  Ajit Pai wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that started the backlash. Commissioner Michael O’Riley issued a statement saying “While I appreciate the Chairman’s willingness to make revisions, I am afraid that tweaking it is just not enough. If any value was ever to come from this particular exercise, that ship has sailed. It is probably time to cancel the CIN study for good.“

Conventional wisdom is that this study will be scrapped. Maybe. That’s not the real issue. This study was just days away from being boots-on-the-ground (it was supposed to start in late February). A very detailed 14-page outline was drafted by the research team. A 60-page study syllabus was written to guide the researchers’ field work. There was barely a peep out of the South Carolina newsrooms who were going to be visited. As best we know, they were expecting monitors to show up and were ready to work with them. Our National Broadcasters Association, the group that represents radio and TV owners, issued no official guidance to its members. Fox News did some good reporting on it. The story was not robustly picked up by other media outlets, keeping it as a right-wing anti-government side show. The number of individual reporters who took public positions about whether they’d cooperate with a government news monitor was very small.

Bottom line: this clear violation of the First Amendment came very close to reality. The number of people willing to fight it was very small. The FCC now knows that the broadcast industry is malleable. They’ve learned that the same idea can be repackaged and could become operable without much resistance.

Chris Conley

Image: Mignon Clyburn from fcc.gov.