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

The case of the Critical Information Needs study


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:

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.