The Federal Communications Commission said on Friday that it was scrapping a controversial study derided by critics as a threat to the First Amendment right of press freedom.
The plan to look at how news organizations choose which stories to cover "overstepped the bounds of what is required," admitted FCC spokeswoman Shannon Gilson.
"To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, S.C., pilot study," Gilson said in a statement posted on the agency's website
"The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final," she said. "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."
The "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs" was to be conducted in six media markets this spring. It sought to learn more about the inner workings of newsroom operations.
The study had drawn the ire of a wide range of critics, from journalists to political commentators to Republican legislators, for fear that it would impede press freedom.
Even one outspoken FCC commissioner charged that the study was overreaching
"The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories," Commissioner Ajit Pai said in The Wall Street Journal
earlier this month.
Pai said he feared the agency would be sending researchers into newsrooms to "grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run."
In December, 16 GOP lawmakers sent FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler a letter charging that the study was the Obama administration's effort to use the agency as its "news police."
Gilson said in her statement on Friday that Wheeler "agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required."
Pai welcomed the FCC's reversal.
"This is an important victory for the First Amendment," he said in a statement reported by The Hill
. "And it would not have been possible without the American people making their voices heard.
"I will remain vigilant that any future initiatives not infringe on our constitutional freedoms," Pai said.
The study even raised questions from one news executive in South Carolina, which was one of the test markets slated for analysis.
"I'm not crazy about the federal government questioning reporters and editors about their news judgments," Bill Rogers, director of the South Carolina Press Association, told the Columbia Journalism Review
. "What is the relevance of news decisions as to whether small businesses can enter the broadcast industry? Viewers evaluate coverage for content and fairness, and the marketplace responds accordingly."
The study also led the American Center for Law and Justice to start a petition to keep "government monitors" out of newsrooms.
"We cannot allow this administration to trample the First Amendment," the group said on its website.
More than 80,000 people had signed the petition
by Friday evening.
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