FCC Commissioner: Agency Looking to Police Newsrooms

Wednesday, 12 Feb 2014 09:21 AM

By Melanie Batley

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The FCC is launching an initiative to question the priorities and decisions of newsrooms and potentially crack down on "perceived station bias," according to one of the agency's commissioners.

In an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, Ajit Pai says the Federal Communications Commission plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run, as part of a "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," reminiscent, he says, of the now-defunct controversial Fairness Doctrine.

"The FCC says the study is merely an objective fact-finding mission. The results will inform a report that the FCC must submit to Congress every three years on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry," Pai writes.

"This claim is peculiar. How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the [Critical Information Needs] study include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?"

Pai argues that the government "has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories," and says it's a "dangerous" first step toward "newsroom policing."

House Republicans raised similar concerns in December about the agency's study, claiming it was an attempt to impose "Fairness Doctrine 2.0," The Hill reported.

"Given the widespread calls for the commission to respect the First Amendment and stay out of the editorial decisions of reporters and broadcasters, we were shocked to see that the FCC is putting itself back in the business of attempting to control the political speech of journalists," the lawmakers wrote at the time in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
"It is wrong, it is unconstitutional, and we urge you to put a stop to this most recent attempt to engage the FCC as the 'news police.'"

The Fairness Doctrine introduced in 1949 required radio and TV stations to air opposing views on controversial issues. It led to lawsuits throughout the 1960s and 1970s arguing that the rules infringed on the freedom of press. The FCC abandoned the regulation in 1987 after admitting it did not serve the public interest.

An FCC official said Tuesday, however, that the agency may rework the study to address the concerns that have been raised.

"The commission has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make," the official told the National Journal. "We're closely reviewing the proposed research design to determine if an alternative approach is merited."

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