FCC Suspends Controversial "Critical Information Needs" Study

Inappropriately intrusive questions to be removed.


The Federal Communications Commission is suspending and revamping its controversial Critical Information Needs study, which I blogged about yesterday. Here's FCC spokesperson Shannon Gilson with the news:

By law, the FCC must report to Congress every three years on the barriers that may prevent entrepreneurs and small business from competing in the media marketplace, and pursue policies to eliminate those barriers. To fulfill that obligation in a meaningful way, the FCC's Office of Communications Business Opportunities consulted with academic researchers in 2012 and selected a contractor to design a study which would inform the FCC's report to Congress. Last summer, the proposed study was put out for public comment and one pilot to test the study design in a single marketplace—Columbia, S.C.—was planned.

However, in the course of FCC review and public comment, concerns were raised that some of the questions may not have been appropriate. Chairman Wheeler agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required. Last week, Chairman Wheeler informed lawmakers that that Commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study. Yesterday, the Chairman directed that those questions be removed entirely.

To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, S.C. pilot study. The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final. Any subsequent market studies conducted by the FCC, if determined necessary, will not seek participation from or include questions for media owners, news directors or reporters.

As I wrote yesterday, the problem with this plan wasn't that it was extraordinary but that it was routine. This wasn't some secret Obama plot to put FCC agents in every newsroom, as some of the more overheated reactions to the study suggested. It was a group of bureaucrats taking it for granted that they should be able to ask these questions of the people they regulate. Identifying and removing entry barriers is a good thing, but it shouldn't require a federal agency to try to determine which stories are important or to discern how newsrooms go about pursuing them. The fact that the FCC felt otherwise reveals an agency culture with a bias toward government planning; the fact that it would ask such irrelevant but intrusive questions reveals that it doesn't always know where its boundaries are.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who set off the recent furor with a Wall Street Journal op-ed 11 days ago, is pleased with the change, declaring that the agency "has now recognized that no study by the federal government, now or in the future, should involve asking questions to media owners, news directors, or reporters about their practices." If it's true that future FCC surveys will not include such questions, then I'm pleased too. But given the mentality that the study reveals, I can't say I'll be surprised if this recurs. I'll say it again: This wasn't some extraordinary plot. It was business as usual, and that's the worst thing about it.

In the meantime, I'll keep harping on the biggest problem: the fact that the same agency that planned to ask those questions is in the business of regulating radio and TV content. Take away the process by which stations must contend with complaints about what they did or did not broadcast each time they're up for relicensing—better yet, take away the requirement that they be regularly relicensed in the first place—and I'll be more tolerant of what the government decides to study.