Internet Goes Crazy Over Ordinary FCC Survey, Claims Agency Wants Draconian Control Over Newsrooms

from the perhaps-you-should-read-the-original-proposal? dept

Last week, when perusing the newswires, I kept seeing references to a most diabolical plan that was supposedly being crafted by the FCC. The agency, I was told by countless news outlets, was engaged in an insane attempt to effectively bring back the Fairness Doctrine — awful rules justly killed off back in 1987 that tried to force fair media coverage. Under this new horrifying plan, the insufferably nosy government would, I was told, shortly thereafter begin telling reporters and newsrooms what they could and couldn’t cover. Newsrooms that failed to play along with this effort, I was told by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai himself, would possibly lose their broadcast licenses, given that the voluntary survey was secretly not voluntary:

The FCC also wants to wade into office politics. One question for reporters is: “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?” Follow-up questions ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions. Participation in the Critical Information Needs study is voluntary—in theory. Unlike the opinion surveys that Americans see on a daily basis and either answer or not, as they wish, the FCC’s queries may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore. They would be out of business without an FCC license, which must be renewed every eight years.”

Madness! The massive stones on government! What a horrible example of government overreach! The outrage grew and grew, as additional news outlets piled on, noting this was a massive attack on the First Amendment. It also was a frontal assault on freedom that warrants the immediate demolition of the FCC entirely.

Knowing the FCC like I do after a decade of covering them, I thought that it seemed a little out of character for a timid, marginally-competent agency terrified of disrupting the status quo to suddenly take LSD and begin such a ham-fisted attack on common sense. As such, I did something crazy — I read the actual study proposal. Apparently, this absolutely insane frontal assault on everything we hold dear in the god-damned universe was little more than a survey trying to ferret out how to best help disadvantaged, poor citizens (especially those for whom English may not be a first language) get the information they need. FCC Mignon Clyburn, who previously owned an African-American newspaper in South Carolina, has long held minority media ownership as a core policy focus.

It’s a fairly routine and entirely voluntary field survey designed to gather data. Nothing more. There’s not really any actual policy even attached to it. There was certainly nothing included that could drive any sane or reasonable individual to the conclusion that newsrooms would soon be under the iron fist of a new FCC-crafted information-control and propaganda gestapo. Many of the complaints against the “Critical Information Needs’ (CIN) survey seemed focused specifically on how volatile and provocative the questions asked were, though I can’t find any questions (page 25, pdf) that are even remotely controversial (perhaps I missed them or I’m not squinting my eyes or tilting me head just right).

You could try to argue the $900,000 survey was a waste of money, but then you’d have to admit the looming hearings about the survey as probably just as wasteful. You could also try to argue that such inquiries push beyond the FCC’s technology-driven mandate (although you’d face counter argument that media ownership analysis is part of their job under the Communications Act). What you wouldn’t be able to do with the slightest bit of factual support is suggest this was an FCC attempt to stifle free speech and newsroom freedom.

But people did, and the hysteria forced the FCC to issue a statement (pdf) saying that the survey was on hold until they could tone down the not-actually-inflammatory-at-all questions. The FCC noted that the survey was part of their Congressional requirement under section 257 of the Communications Act to study barriers to entry for small business owners and entrepreneurs (with an obvious focus on minority business owners). To try and placate the rioting, reading-challenged hordes, the FCC notes that any revamped study won’t ask media owners or reporters what they think:

“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. Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America’s newsrooms is false.”

So in the end, the big “victory” is that a study trying to analyze minority media needs gets gutted and will be less useful. Hooray! Good job, team! Make no mistake, the furor really wasn’t about the study itself, it was part of a long-standing concerted effort to gut any dwindling regulatory oversight the FCC has over the broadcast or broadband industries by demonizing the agency. The Fairness Doctrine is pretty routinely trotted out as a bogeyman on that front; former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell tried to argue that supporting net neutrality would also bring the long-ago dismantled policy back from the dead. That’s not to say that there haven’t been small attempts to bring the Fairness Doctrine back, but those efforts never go anywhere because almost everyone realizes it’s a stupid idea. It’s more useful as a political scarecrow than anything.

Those still worried shouldn’t be; the FCC is so terribly afraid of upsetting industry and the status quo that they can’t even admit fundamental realities (like the broadband industry isn’t competitive and prices are high). They lack the intestinal fortitude to implement significant good policy of any meaningful measure, much less bad ideas of such head-rattling, impossible scale. If we can all agree that government dictating what newsrooms can cover is idiotic, perhaps we can all also agree that those same newsrooms should be hiring people who can actually read?

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Comments on “Internet Goes Crazy Over Ordinary FCC Survey, Claims Agency Wants Draconian Control Over Newsrooms”

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zip says:

Maybe the internet “goes crazy” because people have learned from past experience to be suspicious. (I’m waiting for the Feds to raid a few wayward newspapers to show them who’s boss – Guardian (UK) style.)

It was widely reported that during the invasion of Iraq, there were US government “minders” overseeing every major US news agency – turning the supposedly “free press” into little more than a propaganda organ.

Even today, in international conflicts and revolutions in which the US government is (secretly) backing one side against the other, such as Syria or Ukraine, there’s a huge divide between what the US news media reports and what the International media reports — on the same event.

zip says:

Re: Re: Re:

I suppose the biggest abuse of an “ordinary” government survey might have been when Roosevelt and his War Dept. illegally tapped into the supposedly confidential 1940 US Census in order to hunt down people who stupidly volunteered to admit their Japanese ancestry but declined to surrender themselves to the WWII concentration camps upon demand.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Seriously though they do have a point, I can only imagine (since English is my only language), if you’re learning English, many news programs would be difficult to follow, they speak very fast and they use a lot of big words.

I seem to remember some sort of BBC program targeted at English learners, they spoke slowly and used a controlled vocabulary… maybe that’s what they’re after.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Depends on the audience

The very first question looks to me like it is enough to drive some audiences off the deep end: “What is the news philosophy of the station?” Nearly as provocative is,”Is the news produced in-house or is it provided by an outside source?” and. “Who decides which stories are covered?”

Suppose you are producing extremely ideologically slanted news based on a daily “talking points” memo from political operatives; suppose you are a thinly disguised PAC: Don’t you think questions like this would be proof that the Jack boots are coming?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

But can you supply firewood for that stance? Media are good at running with sources as soon as they see more than one semi-legit source already carrying the story. Hoodwinking 2 legit media-sources can suffice to get the story rolling in all media. Unfortunately this is a very common way for misunderstanding of the main source to be spread.

Republicans are traditionally against regulation and government interference and as soon as the media bring a case they can profile on they will jump it like sharks. By having politicians spout the gospel the original interpretation gets legitimacy and by bringing back a monster-legislation as a thought-experiment experts cannot attack that part of the spin except claiming they haven’t heard it and since the target is biased…

Modern politics/media is a dangerous environment to be the target of.

Anonymous Coward says:

I must agree with comment #1. For many years, establishment politicians have demonstrated a suspicion of non-subservient media. Actions by the press office of the current administration have been particularly pointed in that regard (c.f. campaign reporters being denied access to Candidate Obama when their outlet endorsed a rival, White House Press Office photo shoots, nature of press briefings, etc.). Combine that with the acknowledged abuse of the IRS to target conservative groups, the Department of Justice’s handling of leak investigations (both Snowden and James Rosen come to mind), and the historical credentials of the individuals running this study (w.r.t Fairness Doctrine) and it is not at all surprising to see people suspicious that the administration would like to use FCC authority to harm uncooperative media. Whether they would have done it openly, done it “protection money” style, or played straight and treated this as nothing more than an impartial study is impossible to say now, but I think it is disingenuous to claim that people who suspect an ulterior motive have no basis for their suspicion.

Carl "Bear" Bussjaeger (profile) says:

Not so ordinary

I’m most often in the “suspicious of government motives, but doubtful of conspiracy to the point of ridicule” camp, but my quick read of the proposal (I haven’t gone through all 78 pages yet) suggests that what folks feared is exactly what the survey was going to do.

The three listed main goals of the study could be/are met without the newsroom interviews that were proposed.

1. “the access (or potential barriers) to CINs as identified by the FCC”: The proposed news census would have done that,

2. “the media that makes up media ecologies…”: Doesn’t matter. The media is a black box; you ddon’t need to know what’s inside in order to observe the CIN “output” which they claim was their concern.

3. “the use of and interaction between media that makes media ecologies…”: Reading further, you’ll discover this translates into “Where do people get their news?” That question is answered through the news census and surveys of the users.

Nothing in those goals requires grilling media management or staff as proposed. To the extent that anyone is interested in the process of ensuring that outlets provide what the consumers want, that’s marketing research conducted by the media so they can sell more advertising.

THIS is crap; and I can understand why people are worried about the big license grantor walking in and demanding access and answers:

Page 10, “Qualitative Analysis of Media Providers” is the tricky section, with the real kicker on page 11:

“The final component of this qualitative piece involves the execution of in-depth interviews with corporate management, local management, and support staff. We suggest a maximum of 56 media provider sites (radio and television stations) be surveyed. Within that maximum, interviews will be conducted within each market, stratified by market size. We propose that interviews be conducted at six sites in each of the selected small markets, ten sites in the selected medium markets, and 12 sites in large markets. Five interviews will be conducted at each media site. The selection of the type of staff to interview within each market shall be largely dependent on the number of properties within each market. The maximum number of interviews will be capped at 280.”

And on page 12: “The purpose of these interviews is to ascertain the process by which stories are selected, station priorities (for content, production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias, perceived percent of news dedicated to each of the eight CINs, and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations. Due to the highly sensitive nature of information collected (particularly among reporters and anchors of television news stations), demographic information will not be
reported. Additionally, confidentiality will be assured among all participants interviewed.”

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Not so ordinary

“suggests that what folks feared is exactly what the survey was going to do.”

Really? Because what folks suggested it was going to do was take an iron fist to newsrooms, completely obliterate The First Amendment, with the government threatening to pull broadcast licenses if they didn’t buckle to FCC demands that their entire news process be dictated to them.

And again, I’m not seeing anything in those questions that even remotely supports those claims, no matter how many tims they’re numerically laid out. Also think calling a voluntary survey scheduled for one Carolina market “grilling media managers” is quite a stretch.

The worst offense here is putting too many questions in a survey that would have, in all likelihood, resulted in absolutely no serious policy of any kind, since it’s largely a pet project of one single commissioner honestly interested in giving minorities a leg up.

I find the hysteria entirely bizarre.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Not Their Business

> It’s a fairly routine and entirely voluntary field survey
> designed to gather data.

Why does this data even need to be gathered in the first place? Whether you believe in the black helicopters or not, it’s a valid question why the government feels it needs to know these things at all.

It’s really not the proper role of government to even be asking these questions or gathering data on how private news entities run their businesses.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not Their Business

In fact they’re required to gather much of this data by the Communications Act, and the survey was honestly driven by one commissioner’s genuine interest in helping minorities and the poor get a leg up. The only fault here is in the assumption that these questions were part of some Machiavellian plot to bring back the Fairness Doctrine.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Not Their Business

In fact they’re required to gather much of this
> data by the Communications Act

That only raises the “Nunya business” response up one level from the FCC to Congress.

> and the survey was honestly driven by one
> commissioner’s genuine interest in helping
> minorities and the poor get a leg up.

Good intentions don’t make a government overreach any less of an overreach.

Bottom line – there’s no valid reason for the government to need to know the “editorial philosophy” (or much of the other things they asked) of any newsroom, whether print or broadcast, or cable.

I don’t believe the FCC was planning some kind of politburo-style takeover of American news media or anything, but this is just one more example of the government nosing itself into people’s private business where it doesn’t belong.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Not Their Business

Yes, and so?

So it brings me back to my original comment: It’s really not the proper role of government to even be asking these questions or gathering data on how private news entities run their businesses.

Not only that, since the FCC has no jurisdiction whatsoever over newspapers, it’s especially inappropriate for them to be inserting themselves into their business, no matter how benign they claim to be.

Anonymous Coward says:

“it was part of a long-standing concerted effort to gut any dwindling regulatory oversight the FCC has over the broadcast or broadband industries by demonizing the agency.”

Fine, if they don’t want regulations then lets abolish government established broadcasting monopolies. Anyone can

A: Copy, modify, and redistribute any content broadcasted on such spectra

B: Can broadcast to such spectra freely without worrying about corporate bought FCC police coming down on them.

You can’t have it both ways. Either there needs to be regulation to ensure that broadcasting spectra is used for the public interest or regulations that limit competition should be removed altogether.

Anonymous Coward says:

So now all the FCC is actually "good" for...

…is handing out stupid fines trying to tell people what they can and cannot see or hear on broadcast TV and radio pandering to a bunch of religious zealots that don’t know how to use a power switch, change a channel or station, believe the first amendment only should protect “good Christian speech”, don’t understand that we have a separation between church and state for a very good reason, and are to lazy to raise their own children instead of letting the media raise them for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

With what the government has been doing over the past 4 years with regard to journalism and journalists, how can this be seen as anything other than government coercion of the press?
Also by what level of any interpretation under the law can the FCC even go into a newspaper news room or editorial department?
This idea is straight from Cass Sunstein.

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