FCC

"The studies are absolutely critical for deregulation": Q&A With Gabriel Rossman on the FCC's Suspended Newsroom Study

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FCC.gov

Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai set off a storm of controversy this week with a Wall Street Journal op-ed warning that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was planning an intrusive study of newsroom decision-making—a study that could pave the way for agency to pressure news organizations about their editorial decisions. On Friday afternoon, the study was suspended, with the FCC promising to revise its methods.

Critics said the decision vindicated their concerns. But is there a possible downside for those who favor a less regulated communications industry?

Yesterday afternoon, as the agency's decision to put the study on hold was being announced, I corresponded over email with University of California sociology professor Gabriel Rossman, who studies the diffusion of culture and mass media, about the nature and history of the FCC's proposed study and others like it. Rossman argued that the study was not only fairly typical for the agency, but that for more than a decade, studies like it have actually resulted in deregulation of the communications marketplace. A lightly edited version of our correspondence follows below:

Suderman: The FCC said it was planning a study in which it would go into newsrooms and question editorial staff about their news choices. As a result, a lot of people seem worried about potential First Amendment abuses—possibly even the return of the Fairness Doctrine. How concerned should we be about the free speech implications here?  

Rossman: The Pai op-ed in The Wall Street Journal and much of the discourse around it assumes that this will work out as something like, "This story you wrote seems to be insufficiently supportive of the president's agenda, it would be a shame if you had to explain this at your next license renewal hearing."

Having read the Pai op-ed, the public notice, a few other stories, and generally being familiar with how communications scholarship and the FCC's Media Bureau works, it sounds like the FCC is proposing an ethnography. This is a standard part of the social science methodological repertoire, including by government researchers in other agencies and faculty at schools of communication. So your mental image should be an anthropologist, not a party commissar. 

As to concerns about free speech or the fairness doctrine, I don't really see any evidence for that. Although I don't blame people for distrusting the FCC's respect for its statutory authority given the way in which they attempted to implement net neutrality, the statutory language is pretty clear that these reviews are about market structure and not about any more direct interference in press content decisions.

The basic idea of this kind of review is to study how media markets work and what sorts of markets tend to produce content with the FCC's goals and then use this to shape merger guidelines to push markets towards the kinds of structures that tend to produce this content. Generally speaking the FCC's goals are "localism" and "diversity," which are certainly debatable, but are more or less innocuous. Note that the FCC generally means "diversity" with a lower-case "d" to mean a variety of viewpoints and a variety of content.

For instance, I do a lot of work on pop music radio and in that context the FCC understands diversity to mean a lot of different "formats" or genres being represented. Now you could make an argument that the FCC should be indifferent to this even if the market were to sort out so every station plays "Everything is Awesome" on a continuous loop. But it's not exactly at the top of anyone's list for signs of tyranny that the state prefers that radio markets have stations that play country, and rock, and hip hop, and whatever. 

The FCC's emphasis on diversity superficially resembles the fairness doctrine, but there's an enormous difference between saying that media outlets owned by big or small companies tend to naturally produce a variety of viewpoints so therefore let's use merger guidelines to push the market towards having more big or more small companies versus simply saying each media outlet must have a variety of viewpoints and if it doesn't we'll fine it or yank its license. You may or may not be enthusiastic about anti-trust policy that is intended to reach goals about content, but even still the goals about content are fairly innocuous and the means to achieve them are very indirect. So worst case, this is central planning. But it's a big stretch to call it censorship.

UCLA.edu

Suderman: Put this in context. Has the FCC done this kind of study before? What were the results? 

Rossman: If you want to think in terms of court cases, this sort of study and review involves issues similar to Associated Press vs United States (1945) where the Supreme Court ruled that the government could require the AP to license its content to new market entrants. It bears almost no resemblance to the infamous Red Lion vs FCC (1969) case that allowed direct government interference in content. I think Red Lion was wrongly decided and the facts of the case (which involved Democratic party proxies harassing enemies of LBJ) exemplify the worst abuses of the fairness doctrine and so I'm glad that the Reagan FCC suspended the policy.

However I'm not worried about it coming back since even if the FCC or Congress did try to reinstate the fairness doctrine, the current Supreme Court would almost certainly overturn it on grounds that even if the "scarcity" rationale was valid in the 1960s, it has since been rendered moot by technological improvements that allow more efficient use of spectrum (digital FM, satellite radio, streaming audio over 4G) and substitutes for spectrum (podcasting).

The FCC frequently does studies of media markets and the impact on content. You can find a lot of that work here or here. (In general, these studies are quantitative studies of market structure and media content, but treat the media outlet's internal operations as a black box. The one thing that is a bit new is the ethnographic component.

There are lots of media ethnographers in academia (one of my favorites is Pablo Boczkowski), so this is an established mode of research, but as far as I know—and I could be wrong—the FCC hasn't done much of this kind of work itself.

I'm not familiar with why the FCC wants to do qualitative work, but it makes sense. It's generally a legitimate research technique and it's well-suited to evaluating one of the main concerns people have about media consolidation—that it can lead to top down control by publishers. As such interviewing journalists about their experiences with editorial guidance and control will help inform whether or not this is a realistic concern.

Most of the prior FCC work I'm familiar with is quantitative work. They study media content, they study structural conditions, and then they correlate the two and use the results to shape policies that are not facially content-based. This could be caricatured to sound ominous but it's usually stuff like this. Do tv stations and newspapers owned by the same company tend to show the same political biases? (Answer: No, their biases are not correlated, which implies it's OK to relax "one to a market"). Or when consolidation increases in the radio industry, does format diversity increase or decrease? (Answer: increase, which implies that deregulation is fine). As you can see from these examples, study and review often has the policy result of deregulation. 

Suderman: You say these studies have typically informed deregulation. How important are they in those decisions? Would we end up with a more regulated market in the absence of this sort of work? 

Rossman: The studies are absolutely critical for deregulation. The FCC only has statutory authority to deregulate consolidation rules if it has studies justifying the deregulation. And in fact in Prometheus v FCC, anti-consolidation activists were able to get an injunction from the 3rd Circuit because they thought the FCC's proposed regulatory framework (the "diversity index," which in effect was a relaxation of "one to a market") was insufficiently closely related to the FCC's studies. By inference we can easily imagine that if the FCC proposed future deregulations without any studies at all to justify them that there is no way it would survive court challenge.

Suderman: Is there a reason to be concerned simply about the fact that the FCC is collecting all this information—even if it's intended as just a data-gathering exercise? 

Rossman: I rather doubt it. I'm not aware of previous cases where anyone has used FCC quantitative data about a particular outlet to obstruct a merger or license renewal and I don't see any reason to expect it would be any different for the qualitative data. These media studies are about informing rules, not making particular decisions in implementing those rules.

Suderman: If these sorts of studies are so common, why did this one get so much attention?

Rossman: I think part of it is that it's using ethnographic methodology which can be caricatured as government agents questioning newsroom decisions, whereas prior research has been much more passive in collecting data from media content or almanacs and databases summarizing media content. I also think part of it is the entrepreneurship of people who want to make an issue of it. As Ari Adut has shown in his reading of things like the Oscar Wilde case, scandals don't happen directly because somebody did something scandalous, but because there is an accuser dedicated to making an issue out of it. In recent memory the most familiar case of this is the Gingrich Congress and Ken Starr successfully pushing Clinton on his womanizing whereas a few decades earlier JFK got a pass on his even more egregious behavior.

Suderman: The FCC has suspended the study, pending a redesign. Any guesses as to what the agency might change, or how it might affect results? 

Rossman: I don't have any inside knowledge on this but my best guess is that they'll eliminate or dramatically restrain the qualitative component of the study and go back to their traditional approach of treating the media outlet as a black box. This fundamentally changes the research design from a study of process to one of outcomes. It's not clear how it would affect the bottom line results, but the style of scholarship is radically different. It's a bit like asking how it would have changed the results if Clifford Geertz couldn't attend a Balinese cock fight but only count the dead chickens in dozens of Balinese villages.

Suderman: You seem to think that critics of the study overreacted. Even so, is there maybe some value to overreacting when the intent is to protect free speech rights? Seems like it's not unreasonable to be hyper-vigilant about about this.  How should folks who care about freedom of the press think about the FCC and its work going forward? What should they be watching out for—and what should they worry less about?  

Rossman: Although it's not a particular area of my academic expertise, I care a lot about freedom of the press and if I thought this was actually related to anything like reinstating the fairness doctrine, I would be militantly and vocally opposed to it. 

As far as threats to a free press from the FCC, I have mixed feelings about net neutrality since I'm not sure what I fear more: Comcast or a state that second-guesses Comcast. (My Straussian reading of Wu's Master Switch is that regulatory capture is a pervasive problem in telecom which implies that we should be skeptical of telecom regulation). It particularly bothers me how the FCC tried to implement net neutrality through applying common carrier type rules to "information services" as this opens the door to "search neutrality" which is a profoundly intrusive concept.

I also worry a bit about more ad hoc actions by local politicians calling up outlets to explain themselves for various insensitivities. Probably the biggest threat to free speech is a shift to a permission culture driven by fears about piracy and otherwise attempting to protect and extend intellectual property.

If you want to publish an op-ed saying the president was negligent over Benghazi, no ethnographers working as subcontractors for the FCC are going to do anything to stop you. However try making a documentary and getting the rights for various incidental music appearing in the background cleared. Even after the SOPA backlash, there are still proposals (mostly through trade diplomacy) to tighten DMCA in a pro-rightsholder direction and extend copyright terms beyond even the absurdities of the Bono Act. That sort of thing scares me a lot more than anything the FCC is likely to do. 

Overall, my hope and expectation for the future is one in which broadcasting becomes less important and IP based content becomes more important. Partly I just want the spectrum freed up for higher valued uses (and the Obama administration has been good on this) but another reason I'd like to see a shift away from broadcasting is precisely because broadcasting policy traditionally has by far the most intrusive content-based regulations. The term "public airwaves" is basically throat-clearing for a censorship pitch so the less we rely on the public airwaves the better. Fans of a free press rightly lament the Red Lion decision, but what everybody forgets is that five years later a case involving a newspaper but otherwise having almost identical facts was decided the other way in Miami Herald v Tornillo. That is, the same court that thought concepts like "scarcity," "licensee in the public interest" justified intrusive content-based regulation for broadcasting unanimously laughed at such claims for non-broadcasting media. Likewise, nobody would dream of requiring every website to carry a quota of educational content, Cass Sunstein notwithstanding, nobody will ever get the fairness doctrine applied to your website or print edition.

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  1. This is a standard part of the social science methodological repertoire, including by government researchers in other agencies and faculty at schools of communication.

    So, pseudoscience. That’s a lot of bloviating to say that Suderman.

  2. Just as long as Melissa Harris Racetroller isn’t forced to give equal time to the hate speech mafia.

  3. Why is Suderman so awful? This is a huge steaming pile of “doesn’t get it” and “look over here at this distraction”.

    1. Weigel 2: Electric Boogaloo?

  4. I think part of it is that it’s using ethnographic methodology

    In other words, MUMBO-JUMBO.

    1. No, you’re just ignorant of a very powerful methodological tool in linguistics, anthropology, and other social sciences.

      Sorry.

      1. In this case it is mumbo jumbo, since he’s using a bit of jargon from his specialty, that few will be in a position to question, to paper over a significant problem with his position.

        It would be like me saying that Red Light Cameras are not a threat to freedom because they use Sobolev Spaces and Hermite Elements. Nobody here is qualified to dispute that because they don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

        1. Would it be like you talking about address parsing, Tulpy-Poo? Because in that case you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about either.

          1. I’ve got an address in my pants for you to parse, glibbage spewer.

            1. Ah, I see. “1 A St.” Kind of…short, isn’t it, Tulpy-Poo?

              1. Yeah, but it’s right downtown!

                1. Short and quick! The Tulpy-Poo way!

      2. Why in Hell does the government need some anthropological jibberjabber before it just fucks off and leaves us alone?

      3. I’d love to see you try to explain this. “Social science” is an oxymoron. Science is: (1) observations; (2) hypotheses from observations; (3) falsifiable statements designed to confirm or refute hypotheses; (4) repeatable experiments designed to falsify (or not) statements derived from hypotheses; (5) After very, very, very many iterations of (4), by very many diverse folks, hypotheses in (2) may be accepted as very likely to be correct.

        Social “sciences” do not allow for (4), and usually don’t even allow for (3). Ergo, they are not science.

        In other words, MUMBO-JUMBO.

        Sorry.

  5. “But it’s not exactly at the top of anyone’s list for signs of tyranny that the state prefers that radio markets have stations that play country, and rock, and hip hop, and whatever.”

    It should at least be *on* the list.

  6. “But it’s not exactly at the top of anyone’s list for signs of tyranny that the state prefers that radio markets have stations that play country, and rock, and hip hop, and whatever.”

    This.
    The guy’s entire argument seems to be ‘well, it won’t hurt much.’
    Screw him and the FCC. There are no studies required for deregulation; simply announce the end of the regulations.
    That’s all.

    1. Have to throw a bone to those who might otherwise do us great damage. Let them think they’re doing something important, let them do a little damage, but not much, and we’re better off than if we fought with them and they got themselves a champion who got them to do a great deal of damage.

      1. People have been throwing bones for over a century.

        Yeah, that’s a good plan.

        1. Erecting five guillotines on the steps of the US Capitol for 24/7 operation is always an option. Something the FCC had better learn tout suite.

    2. +10

      You don’t need to do a study to deregulate.

      Even if N previous similar ‘studies’ have apparently resulted in ‘deregulation’, it is only because the results of the study supported the aims of the state. (and consider: Nazi Germany propaganda was not totally controlled by the state — if the people are already amenable to propagandizing for the state, who gives a shit whether they are regulated or not?)

      If deregulation is really the goal, just do it.

      1. Know when the commissions were commissioned in the USA by the federal gov’t that wound up producing the reports that supported the deregulation that we got and still live with today? The Nixon admin. Finding that out years later improved my impression of him & the peeps around him. We might’ve gotten marijuana deregulated then too, but he was too pissed off at hippies, so its temporary placement in sched 1 of the CSA was made permanent even after the commission on the subject gave its report recommending its decontrol.

        Unfortunately you do need to do a study to deregulate, because regul’n has its friends that need to be defended against. As long as there’s not some other factor like hippies, their reports tend to carry weight.

        You’re right about the Nazis, though. They never did have the control of the media that the Communists in the USSR did. But they didn’t need it, because they were popular.

  7. Oh, fire the members and disband the FCC while you’re at it.

  8. But it’s not exactly at the top of anyone’s list for signs of tyranny that the state prefers that radio markets have stations that play country, and rock, and hip hop, and whatever.

    What is at the top of my list for signs of tyranny is the state coercively enforcing a preference that the market can sort out just fine. As long as the FCC is granting enough licenses, there will be radio stations catering to musical tastes as diverse as the population’s.

    1. Or the FCC could sell off “property rights” to the frequencies and get out of the business altogether.

    2. And I’m sure the market sorting it out just fine is what will happen regardless. But this way people at the FCC will think they’ve done something significant, even though they actually will have had no effect.

  9. Having read the Pai op-ed, the public notice, a few other stories, and generally being familiar with how communications scholarship and the FCC’s Media Bureau works, it sounds like the FCC is proposing an ethnography. This is a standard part of the social science methodological repertoire, including by government researchers in other agencies and faculty at schools of communication. So your mental image should be an anthropologist, not a party commissar.

    New most terrifying words: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to do an ethnography.”

    1. “I’m from the government, and we’re interested in deregulating you. So let’s ask about what stories you covered and which ones you chose not to cover.”

      1. “Says here you killed a story which would have interviewed people who successfully signed up on the Obamacare Web site. But you *did* run a story about the so-called ‘scandal’ in Benghazi. How can we deregulate you if you keep acting like this?”

    2. New most terrifying words: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to do an ethnography.”

      Oh, you just took me back to my youth, when liberals used to use the “I’m from the government and I’m [here to help]” as a reliable go-to joke. Now they say it without a smile on their face, backed by a regulatory SWAT team.

  10. So, worst case this is central planning?

    Oh, thats ok then. If its only the FCC trying to do the thing that helped kill millions in the Soviet Union.

  11. Imagine the response of Putin’s government did this – would we accept their innocuous explanations and their excuses?

    1. It does and we do.

        1. It’s the tulpal We.

          1. Why would NGKC be using the tulpal we?

          2. The worst “We” of them all.

    2. At least I’ve never heard a Reasonoid bring it up in all their Russia Today appearances.

    3. Reason editors appear on RT all the time, so yeah.

  12. OT: Krugabe goes all in on his defense of the ARRA.

    Five years have passed since President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ? the “stimulus” ? into law. With the passage of time, it has become clear that the act did a vast amount of good. It helped end the economy’s plunge; it created or saved millions of jobs; it left behind an important legacy of public and private investment.

    Warning: Strawmen abound

    1. Sorry, not giving him a single page hit.

      1. I find a little comfort from the fact that one of the meanings of “Krug” in German is “crock”.

    2. I can’t believe people can still use the phrase “created or saved” with a straight face and expect to be taken seriously. I guess when you only preach to true believers and hand wave away any opposition it doesn’t matter.

  13. Here’s a story that broadcasters shouldn’t cover if they want to get deregulated:

    “BROOKLYN, NY – Two police officers are being accused of hitting Robert Jackson’s car and then arresting him to cover it up. Surveillance footage shows police cars driving the wrong way down a street and sideswiping the SUV. Officers then exited their vehicles and appeared to search for cameras before arresting Jackson for destruction of city property….

    “…Jackson was arrested for destruction of city property, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

    “The charges were eventually dropped against Jackson …”

    http://thelibertarianrepublic……z2tnxrvhhO

    He was probably guilty, the authorities probably just dropped the charges out of the goodness of their hearts. Prosecutors routinely drop charges against people who destroy government property and resist arrest.

    Wouldn’t you agree, Tulpa?

    1. Considering they were trying to frame him for a crime, he probably was disorderly and resisting arrest. Not sure why they felt the need to drop those charges too.

    2. Speaking of strawmen abounding…

      1. “I have even more terrible revelations from the real world for you: sometimes people who are caught speeding or running a red light get off with warnings rather than getting brought to trial as the law prescribes.”

        https://reason.com/blog/2014/02…..nt_4314970

    3. The cops should be criminally charged of course, but the guy was a dimwit for sitting in a car with a suspended license. That’s called “making the thug’s job easy”.

      1. “That girl sure is a dimwit for wearing that outfit, she’s asking to get raped”

        /trollpa

  14. Nobody replied to this in an earlier thread, so I’ll ask again:

    Maybe I’m missing something, but how in the world would anyone determine “barriers that may prevent entrepreneurs and small business from competing in the media marketplace” by asking questions of “media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters”?

    “So, do you folks have any barriers around here that would prevent entrepreneurs and small business from competing with you?”

    Seriously, I am at a loss to understand how that survey was supposed to supply data to “fulfill that obligation.”

    1. You will be forever at a loss because the survey had nothing to do with entrepreneurs or barriers to entry. This was a lame CYA excuse for getting called out for sneaking the fairness doctrine back into effect.

      Fairness doctrine as in “We don’t want Fox news impeding startups like Air America, now do we?”

    2. It is the fairness doctrine, write large. As Homple states above, they’re doing an ‘ethnography’ study to make sure that… fairness exists in the market place. Future mergers can be denied or green-lit based upon fairness of market conditions.

      BTW: The government approving or denying any merger in any industry IS A FAIRNESS DOCTRINE.

  15. The FCC is in itself a violation of the first amendment. How could there be no concern about first amendment violations? The FCC charges a tax. Wouldn’t this infringe on free speech, as it is essentially charging a fee for usage of the airways and whatnot?

  16. Mark my words. After an allotted time period, say late Nov., The Regime will institute a harsher version of this oversight quietly during a manufactured crisis.

    1. Perhaps a manufactured situation like the Great Election Crisis of 2016. Those chads won’t hang themselves, know what I mean?

  17. “The basic idea of this kind of review is to study how media markets work and what sorts of markets tend to produce content with the FCC’s goals and then use this to shape merger guidelines to push markets towards the kinds of structures that tend to produce this content. ”

    That’s exactly what I don’t want the FCC to do. How is this supposed to assuage my worries?

  18. So I actually read this all the way through and liked it a lot, even though I don’t agree with Rossman that such a study is not in itself a threat to free speech.

    1. Nothing good come out of the booty. Sheizer laced with all sorts of bacteria is all that comes out of the booty. So if there was sheizer on your table, would you still eat off of it, or would you throw it in the trash?

      Unless you mean pirate booty (treasure). Then that’s totally different. Everyone loves pirate booty. :0P

  19. The basic idea of this kind of review is to study how media markets work and what sorts of markets tend to produce content with the FCC’s goals and then use this to shape merger guidelines to push markets towards the kinds of structures that tend to produce this content.

    And this is supposed to make me feel better.

    1. Shaping merger guidelines to push markets toward producing content consistent with the goals of a government agency is what the First Amendment is all about.

      Right?

  20. I agree that we shouldn’t need a study to deregulate and I would be happy if we just got rid if the FCC, this paragraph would indicate that the study is indeed necessary for deregulation by the FCC:

    Rossman: The studies are absolutely critical for deregulation. The FCC only has statutory authority to deregulate consolidation rules if it has studies justifying the deregulation. And in fact in Prometheus v FCC, anti-consolidation activists were able to get an injunction from the 3rd Circuit because they thought the FCC’s proposed regulatory framework (the “diversity index,” which in effect was a relaxation of “one to a market”) was insufficiently closely related to the FCC’s studies. By inference we can easily imagine that if the FCC proposed future deregulations without any studies at all to justify them that there is no way it would survive court challenge.

    Again, we should get rid of the FCC and congress should do its own dirty work and not have agencies make de facto laws through regulation, however, as the rules are now, the FCC can’t deregulate without doing studies like this.

  21. Could someone explain to my dumbass why we need the FCC.

    1. You are not dumb. You’re correct that we don’t need no stinkin’ FCC.

      FCC is subverting freedom for you and me. If it was up to the FCC, they’d want to know how many times we take a pee. Some would even say “damn, that sexy Vampire is for me so I better find a politician to let me force him into slavery cause he’s so savory”.

      :0)

    2. Spectrum allocation and (maybe) amateur radio licensing.

      1. Hell, these days all they do is maintain the ham radio license database. Hams themselves give the exams that qualify one for a license.

        http://www.arrl.org/volunteer-examiners

      2. Spectrum allocation

        Can be managed by giving/selling property rights to the spectrum. Let the owners protect their own property.

  22. lol, US POlitics. Best politics money can buy lol.

    http://www.RealAnon.tk

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