Chip Babcock Speaks: The FCC Backs Down on Newsroom Intrusion – But How Did It Get This Far?

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Explore:  FCC Journalism

The Federal Communications Commission was scheduled to begin this spring a "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs." Backed by a 110-page report from two prestigious journalism schools and a "Final Research Design" from a firm called Social Solutions, the FCC was prepared to, in the words of one of its commissioners, "send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run."

So we would have had a government sponsored and funded program inquiring of the press about what they cover and why, and many of the targets were television and radio stations which are regulated by that agency. It is hard to imagine a program more offensive to the First Amendment. And yet it got scant notice from anyone (including the press) until FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai wrote an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal where he decried the program and said: "The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories."

It may well be true that Americans need more information, although my jammed inbox would belie that. But how could a journalism school suggest that it is the government's role to identify those needs as a "first step" and then dictate to the media how to fulfill them?

In the wake of that article and criticism from some members of Congress, the FCC decided to drop the effort which had been in the planning stages for over two years. How did it get so far without notice or protest?

I began to look into the issue at the request of a client and was astonished to find that the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison had, at the FCC's request, prepared a report which concluded that:

"[T]here are clear and significant information needs of Americans ... A large body of research suggests that many of these needs are not being met, and that access to information and, equally, the tools and skills necessary to navigate it are essential to even a minimal definition of equal opportunity and civic and democratic participation...we recommend that the FCC conduct serious, rigorous research into whether and how these needs are being met.

It may well be true that Americans need more information, although my jammed inbox would belie that. But how could a journalism school suggest that it is the government's role to identify those needs as a "first step" and then dictate to the media how to fulfill them? And how is it that there was so little outrage about this that it took one of the FCC's own Commissioners to blow the whistle?

Commissioner Pai framed the issue in a way all us can understand when he wrote:

"Should all stations follow MSNBC's example and cut away from a discussion with a former congresswoman about the National Security Agency's collection of phone records to offer live coverage of Justin Bieber's bond hearing? As a consumer of news, I have an opinion. But my opinion shouldn't matter more than anyone else's merely because I happen to work at the FCC.

If the FCC had not scrapped the program there would have been First Amendment-inspired litigation designed to enjoin it. But I worry that the FCC would have called on its J-school allies as expert witnesses validating the old Pogo cartoon saying: "We have met the enemy and they is us."

Topics:  FCC, Journalism

Published In: Communications & Media Updates, Constitutional Law Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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