Why Would the Federal Communications Commission Ask Newsrooms About Their Story Selection Process?

For the last 10 days, FCC-watchers have been abuzz about the commission's upcoming attempt to "identify and understand the critical information needs of the American public." Anxieties about the study have been afoot for a while, but the recent furor began on February 10, when Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner at the agency, published an op-ed attacking the idea in The Wall Street Journal. Warning that the effort was the "first step down" the "dangerous path" of "newsroom policing," Pai made his case against the study:

Let's see...can I use the UNITED STATES OF PARANOIA cover for this one? No? Hmm...OK, let me pull out this older one.With its "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," or CIN, the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run. A field test in Columbia, S.C., is scheduled to begin this spring.

The purpose of the CIN, according to the FCC, is to ferret out information from television and radio broadcasters about "the process by which stories are selected" and how often stations cover "critical information needs," along with "perceived station bias" and "perceived responsiveness to underserved populations."

How does the FCC plan to dig up all that information? First, the agency selected eight categories of "critical information" such as the "environment" and "economic opportunities," that it believes local newscasters should cover. It plans to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their "news philosophy" and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information.

The FCC also wants to wade into office politics. One question for reporters is: "Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?" Follow-up questions ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions.

Pai's piece doesn't mention it, but the commission also plans to look at newspaper and Internet content, areas that are outside the FCC's regulatory dominion.

The agency quickly started dropping hints that it would be changing course. On February 12, Adweek reported that the CIN "may now be on hold," adding: "At the very least, the controversial sections of the study will be revisited under new chairman Tom Wheeler and incorporated into a new draft." This evidently was too vague to be reassuring, as worries about the plan have only intensified since then.

The most bizarre thing about all this may be the disconnect between the study's content and the reason the FCC says it's doing it. The commission is supposed to report to Congress on "regulations prescribed to eliminate market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses" and "proposals to eliminate statutory barriers to market entry by those entities." Somehow that requirement led to the CIN. Now, if the study shows that existing stations are ignoring important news, I suppose I can see how that would help make the case for allowing more stations on the air. But it's hard to see how a probe of the media's story selection practices is going to identify any actual barriers to creating those new stations. If you read the commission's research plan—I've embedded a copy at the end of this post—you'll find some pro forma references to finding "potential barriers to entry" but not much in the way of explaining how the questions Pai cited are going to do that.

The good news is that I don't see overt signs of a different regulatory agenda in the plan's pages. The thing is written in the tone of someone who wants to understand what stories are being covered and where people turn for news, not someone with a preset remedy for the problems she might uncover. If this were a proposal at a department of sociology instead of a federal agency, it would be unobjectionable, even welcome.

But because it's a federal agency—worse yet, an agency that decides whether the stations it's studying will have their broadcast licenses renewed—we have a case here of regulators probing people's speech and then being in a position to use its findings against them. What's most worrisome about this research plan may be the way its authors never pause to consider whether it's appropriate for the FCC to be asking about such things in the first place. (The closest it comes is when it notes that some of its questions might be seen as "sensitive." But it treats that as a barrier to getting sources to open up, not a reason to reconsider the project.) Nor is there any awareness of the idea that the government shouldn't be in the role of deciding what news is important. (Presumably we all agree that we need to know about, say, upcoming weather emergencies. But when you start asking reporters about the stories their editors spiked, you're bound to enter dicier territory.) Evidently, the Federal Communications Commission is so accustomed to seeing itself in the information management business that it takes these things for granted.

But then, why shouldn't it? It's been regulating speech for decades now. Start worrying about this stuff, and you might start asking whether the First Amendment, properly understood, actually allows the FCC to issue licenses based on what people say or don't say on the air. And that isn't a conversation the commission will ever be eager to have.

The research plan is embedded below.

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  • John||

    The good news is that I don't see overt signs of a different regulatory agenda in the plan's pages. The thing is written in the tone of someone who wants to understand what stories are being covered and where people turn for news, not someone with a preset remedy for the problems she might uncover.

    Jesse, anyone who wants to understand what stories are being covered and why, has a preset remedy in mind. If they didn't, they wouldn't care what the answer was.

  • Matrix||

    John, you just want Murdoch to own it all!!!! ZOMG CORPORASHUNZ!!!!! We need the government to control what the media says so they will tell us the truth! Praise Obamessiah! (PBUH)

    /liberaldouche

  • Loki||

    anyone who wants to understand what stories are being covered and why, has a preset remedy in mind

    How much you want to bet the results of this study will be touted when they decide to try and resurrect the Fairness Doctrine again?

  • Loki||

    Unless, of course, the results aren't favorable to that end, or show a bias towards left-leaning stories being approved more often than right-leaning stories, in which case it will be quietly forgotten.

  • ||

    There is as much chance of that happening as there is of Michael Mann producing a revised study showing the whole global warming thing to be a mistake.

  • -Umbriel-||

    Probably, though I wouldn't rule out the use of certain Left-ish bias results to justify a broader brush second coming of the "Fairness Doctrine", which I agree with Loki is probably what's at the root of all this. The Left continues to grope for ways of thwarting Citizens United -- particularly ways that can be done more stealthily, via Executive Orders and initiatives, than could actual legislation.

  • Zeb||

    anyone who wants to understand what stories are being covered and why, has a preset remedy in mind

    You think? I kind of want to understand that and I really don't have any remedy in mind. I'm sure many others feel similarly.

  • John||

    Sure Zeb. But they don't work for the FCC.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Who doesn't miss the Fairness Doctrine?

  • John||

    It is easier to control the media than people think. You just use the FCC to ensure the major media outlets tow the lion or lose their license in the name of "fairness". Then you pay off and cajole the various web companies to ensure that only approved media sources can be located on search engines and that blog hosting and social media companies only allow acceptable content. Combine this with an army of nasty horrible government stooges like Tony and Shreek to inform on their neighbors and you clamp down on information pretty quickly. If you don't believe me, imagine posting some racist meme on Facebook. How long before the company took it down?

    The beauty of such a system is, it wouldn't technically run afoul of the first amendment, since the government wouldn't be censoring anything. The government would just be using its regulatory power to ensure media companies acted responsibly. And who wouldn't support that?

  • Killaz||

    Anyone who takes these right wing reports that progressives want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine seriously has no understanding of the modern left. No one wants to go back to that in this age of modern dispersed media. Be serious. /near verbatim joe_derp

  • The Last American Hero||

    Except for Democratic congressmen that have proposed, you know, bringing back the fairness doctrine.

  • paranoid android||

    Well, yeah. You just start with some common sense restrictions on hate speech--there are so many young girls and LGBT youths who need the Internet to be a safe space, don't you understand? It's not infringing on anyone's freedom if we require companies to take down content which hurt's people's feelings, all reasonable people agree on that. The only people who would object are extremists who want the freedom to be racist bigots, why should society accommodate them?

    ...

    Is it disturbing to anyone else how a bunch of feel-good jabberwocky can be arranged to sound like a rationale for ending free speech?

  • wareagle||

    it's only disturbing if you do not rely on the feelz. So much of proggie dogma requires a suspension of logic.

  • John||

    Yes it is. Very disturbing.

  • Ted S.||

    Warty needs a safe space, too.

  • ||

    It is disturbing to me how a bunch of feel-good jabberwocky can be arranged to sound like a rationale for ending freedom of any sort or altogether.

    That is the left's stock in trade.

  • Locke||

    Erm, John, I think you mean "Toe the line"

  • Caleb Turberville||

    Remind me again how the FCC's very existence doesn't violate the First Amendment?

  • Jordan||

    You've got it all wrong. The First Amendment's existence violates the Interstate Commerce Clause. Or something. There, now I'm qualified to be a Constitutional Law professor.

  • BiMonSciFiCon||

    Are you able to interview this week for our new con law chair? /yale

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    We saw him first! /harvard

  • Zeb||

    Well, some of their purposes don't. Making sure broadcasters don't muddle up the airwaves so badly that they are useless is something that is useful and not violating the constitution. And the argument could be made that it is a reasonable function of a small government. But their regulation of content certainly seems directly contrary to the first amendment.

  • GILMORE||

    I don't even know if Falco is relevant here, but what the hell=

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNHkWrUcLvU

    'Anti-Propaganda' Ban Repealed, Freeing State Dept. To Direct Its Broadcasting Arm At American Citizens'

    "The Broadcast Board of Governors, which produces programming like the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, has been prevented from aiming its programming at Americans since the 1970's when the Smith-Mundt Act...This was done to distance the State Department's efforts from the internal propaganda machine operated by the Soviet Union.

    Now, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 (part of the National Defense Authorization Act) has repealed the domestic prohibition, allowing the government's broadcasting to be directed at/created for Americans for the first time in over 40 years."

    This propaganda stuff really doesn't work well when there's all these other 'free market' media orgs saying whatever the hell comes into their heads.

  • John||

    No it doesn't. But why is the government paying for it when it gets for free all the propaganda that the entire mass media can produce?

  • ||

    Yeah, I was just thinking that in classic lefty fashion these stoopid fuckers are stepping on their own dicks in a big way. They wont be in power forever. The worst 'offenders' would be the outfits that are in the tank for them already.

    Jesus they are dumb.

  • The Last American Hero||

    Yep. It would probably put Fox News out of business because all their folks would be leaving for better paying jobs at the big 3 networks.

  • ||

    The alt-text is SELF AWARE!

  • Hugh Akston||

    The Alt-text Funding Bill is passed. The system goes on-line February 20, 2014. Human decisions are removed from blog posts. Alt-text begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 3:35 PM Eastern time. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

  • ||

    The Messiah's pick for FCC Chief Diversity Officer was Mark Lloyd. Mark Lloyd thinks that Chavez was the greatest thing in Latin America since the Bolivar revolutions.

    “In Venezuela, with Chavez, really had an incredible revolution – a democratic revolution – to begin to put in place things that are going to have an impact on the people of Venezuela.
    The property owners and the folks who then controlled the media in Venezuela rebelled – worked, frankly, with folks here in the U.S. government, worked to oust him – but he came back with another revolution, and then Chavez began to take very seriously the media in his country.” - Mark Lloyd

    I remember when Obo was first elected he barred FOX News from the White House and press conferences, claiming that they were not a real news agency. Even today he appears fixated on them as the cause of all of his troubles.

    Is there really any doubt about what these fuckers are up to? If they cant nationalize all the media, then they want a leash on it.

  • John||

    and then Chavez began to take very seriously the media in his country.”

    What a clown. He might as well have said "you know that Hitler guy had some good ideas, he just let things get a little out of hand"

    The only good news is that "diversity officer" means his job is to torture the FCC employees not the rest of us.

  • ||

    But you know how that works. He tortures the right ones until they quit and then replaces them with the 'right people'.

  • ||

    But you know how that works. He tortures the right ones until they quit and then replaces them with the 'right people'.

  • ||

    Goddamn squirrels. Where is my 22?

  • wareagle||

    that someone can use Chavez and democratic in the same sentence makes me wonder what happened to the dictionary and the language, because Lloyd's interpretation of democratic and mine are vastly different.

  • Loki||

    B-b-but... he won an ELEKSHUN!!!!111!!!!!

  • Marshall Gill||

    One man, one vote, one TIME.

  • Raston Bot||

    In this context, Mark Lloyd means the mob rule definition of democracy where the majority seizes the property of the minority.

  • Marshall Gill||

    Mark Lloyd means the mob rule definition of democracy

    It really is the only definition. How could it be anything else?

  • Raston Bot||

    That quote's a keeper.

    Chavez's policies have reached the crowning achievement of socialism: shortages of toilet paper (stolen from a Cato post)

  • BakedPenguin||

    Psssh. They have plenty of toilet paper.

    They're called bolivars.

  • ||

    The Messiah's pick for FCC Chief Diversity Officer was Mark Lloyd. Mark Lloyd thinks that Chavez was the greatest thing in Latin America since the Bolivar revolutions.

    “In Venezuela, with Chavez, really had an incredible revolution – a democratic revolution – to begin to put in place things that are going to have an impact on the people of Venezuela.
    The property owners and the folks who then controlled the media in Venezuela rebelled – worked, frankly, with folks here in the U.S. government, worked to oust him – but he came back with another revolution, and then Chavez began to take very seriously the media in his country.” - Mark Lloyd

    I remember when Obo was first elected he barred FOX News from the White House and press conferences, claiming that they were not a real news agency. Even today he appears fixated on them as the cause of all of his troubles.

    Is there really any doubt about what these fuckers are up to? If they cant nationalize all the media, then they want a leash on it.

  • ||

    Geez, what is it with me and the double postings lately?

  • Loki||

    The squirrels are just humping your leg.

  • kinnath||

    "I don't know how you do things in Beverly Hills, but back home we shoot revenuers" -- Jed Clampet.

  • ||

    One branch of my family is from the Catahoula lake area. They were big moonshiners, and were still distilling up until about 5 years ago when the last of the old ones died.

    My God, the stories i heard from them.

    Yeah, they did shoot revenuers.

  • John||

    There are still places in SE Oklahoma where making a wrong turn while wearing a suit can get you killed and your body never found. Those are mostly chop shops and meth labs these days. But same mentality just different product.

  • Marshall Gill||

    John, they grow some wicked good weed down there, too. It isn't just meth and chop shops.

  • Pro Libertate||

    There's only one ethically correct position here: Refuse to cooperate with the FCC, which has zero legal authority to compel cooperation with this process.

  • 110 Lean||

  • Pro Libertate||

    To drive up ammo prices? To make hanging mobiles?

  • Hugh Akston||

    Well, considering the aim and control of most law enforcement officers, 2,500 rounds would result in at most five or six hits a piece.

  • Floridian||

    Idk, but if they are looking to oppress people there are certain pockets in the south spoiling for a civil war part deuce.

  • Loki||

    "That's a nice broadcasting license you've got there, be a shame if it weren't renewed..."

  • Pro Libertate||

    I think that would be hard to do right now, given that things like the Fairness Doctrine are no more. They can't legally regulate content beyond showing SEX and saying FUCK in broadcast (and not, incidentally, on cable, even the commercial variety).

  • ||

    Participation is voluntary here the same way paying taxes is voluntary. You can volunteer, or the FCC can find any number of excuses to give your broadcast license to some other party.

  • Pro Libertate||

    It's not that bad just yet. The media can simply go apeshit, which, on this, they'll do even with Obama in office.

  • ||

    TV media is always one of the first to sell out principles for short term gains. The FCC isn't going to start out by bashing progressive stations, they're going to go after small-market stations with a right-leaning philosophy. The rest of the media will cheer when those kulaks and wreckers are taken off the air. They'll tell themselves they aren't the next item on the menu, but they will be.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Maybe, but I think there's enough self-preservation among them to worry about what could happen in a few years. After all, even the left-leaning media got upset about a Fox reporter catching hell, which was just last year.

  • Ted S.||

    Don't forget how the Clinton-era ONDCP got TV shows to put in anti-drug plotlines.

  • ||

    I would also like to point out that since this story was widely disseminated and thus a clamp was put on the FCC's efforts that we have enough of a functioning press to get the job done, therefore the FCC can relax.

  • Tim||

    [1984 quotation here]

  • CE||

    More importantly, in a country with a First Amendment, why do we even tolerate a federal communications commission?

  • Pro Libertate||

    Say, you're right.

    I'd like to know what Paul's position is on the FCC.

  • Tim||

    1.) We don't want children seeing tits.

    2.) We can show shootings before ten PM as long as there's no blood. Or shot tits.

    3.) Political leverage over media.

  • Almanian!||

    Tits

    *two thumbs up*

  • LynchPin1477||

    proposals to eliminate statutory barriers to market entry by those entities

    Wouldn't eliminating the FCC count as such a proposal?

  • Almanian!||

    WHY DO YOU HATE FAIRNESS, JESSE? WHY?

  • Harvard||

    Full on can't be too far away.

    In other news, I've got three Colt M-4's, NIB, bidding to begin at any time.

  • Byte Me||

    The commission is supposed to report to Congress on "regulations prescribed to eliminate market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses" and "proposals to eliminate statutory barriers to market entry by those entities."

    Ummm...thanks to the internet, there are nearly no barriers to starting your own media enterprise. So, even your ostensible reason i totally flawed. Fuck off FCC.

  • Number 2||

    " First, the agency selected eight categories of "critical information" such as the "environment" and "economic opportunities," that it believes local newscasters should cover..."

    Hmmmm -- the very issues that Obama and Team Blue have chosen as political themes in a congressional election year....and the FCC wants to make sure that local newscasters cover them...and wants to know what station bosses are blocking stories on these subjects...

    No, I don't see a problem here! Do you?

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