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?