FCC’s Pai Compares Critical Needs Study To Fairness Doctrine

The FCC's test of a new study on the critical information needs (CIN) of the public, particularly "underserved populations," is a "dangerous" first step toward the kind of newsroom policing represented by the now-defunct fairness doctrine.

That is according to Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who took to the op ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to say the current FCC is acting as though it has a role in pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.

"How does the FCC plan to dig up all that information?" Pai asks. "First, the agency selected eight categories of 'critical information' such as the 'environment' and 'economic opportunities,' that it believes local newscasters should cover. It plans to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their "news philosophy" and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information."

"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."

Pai suggests that since Americans don't seem to agree on what they need to know, the FCC should not be trying to decide for them. "MSNBC, for example, apparently believes that traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., is the crisis of our time," he says. "Fox News, on the other hand, chooses to cover the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi more heavily than other networks."

He brands the commission's planned multimarket CIN study as potentially the same kind of "meddling" in TV station news coverage the commission engaged in through the fairness doctrine, which was ostensibly meant to increase diversity of thought, he says, but often simply discouraged stations from covering controversy altogether to avoid the mandate to air "unwanted content that might cause listeners to change the channel."

That doctrine has not been enforced since 1987, but was only taken off the books in 2011 after a campaign to formally expunge it led by Pai's predecessor, commissioner Robert McDowell.

The FCC said back in February 2012 it was commissioning the study with an eye toward collecting evidence to support boosting media participation, including by lowering entry barriers, to entrepreneurs and small businesses, including those run by minorities and women.

Former acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn was a big backer of the study. She had been pushing for better data to support FCC actions on boosting minority and female ownership, data that will be necessary to buttress any affirmative action measures in court.

On Clyburn's last day, the FCC named Columbia, S.C., as the field test market for the study, which will be conducted starting this spring.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.