House to Hold Hearing On FCC Study

House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said Tuesday he is "pursuing legislative solutions" to block the FCC's Critical Information Needs (CIN) study.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler last week signaled the study's methodology would be changed to insure no journalists or media outlet owners would be asked about how and why they cover or don't cover certain studies.

That was in part a response to the spotlight put on the study by commissioner Ajit Pai. But Walden said Wheeler has not adequately responded to a letter from House Republicans about the study, and that Walden will hold a hearing and introduce legislation to stop it. Such legislation is unlikely to pass a divided Congress, but the hearing could be an opportunity to grill the commissioners on the issue if they agreed to testify.

"The very existence of this CIN study is an affront to the First Amendment and should have never been proposed in the first place," said Walden. "As someone with a journalism degree, I was alarmed from the moment I saw it, which is why we wrote to Chairman Wheeler in December to urge him to stop the study. To date, Chairman Wheeler has insisted upon only making small tweaks, and what he has proposed to do isn’t enough. The study should be eradicated completely."

Wheeler said that the pilot study, scheduled for later this year in Columbia. S.C.. would not go forward until changes in the methodology. The FCC later put out a statement clarifying that the changes would include no questions asked of owners or journalists, though it did not say the pilot or overall study was being halted.

The study was initially announced back in 2012 as a way to gauge the impact of diversity on women and small businesses in an effort to buttress FCC diversity initiatives and in response to a court remand asking it to do that. But when it was finally launched last year, the study drew criticism for some of the questions it proposed to ask of journalists and media outlet owners, including newspapers over which the FCC does not have jurisdiction--except to prevent broadcasters from merging with them.

Walden and other Republicans have been suggesting the study could be a back-door way for the Administration to try and insure balance in news coverage, and are likening it to a return of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to seek out opposing viewpoints on controversial topics. The White House last week deferred a question about the study to the FCC, which was followed by the various clarifications out of the commission.

The Fairness Doctrine had the effect of encouraging broadcasters to air neither side of controversy and the FCC voted in 1987 not to enforce it, though it remained on the books until a push by then FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell to have it stricken from the record. "It took nearly 25 years to get the Fairness Doctrine off the books once it had been 'eliminated' in 1987," said Walden, "and we will do whatever it takes to ensure this study or any other effort by the government to control the output of America’s newsrooms never sees the light of day."

"This is nothing but false outrage about a fake controversy," said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press, which supports the study. "The attack on this study has been willfully misleading and dishonest. Running around and screaming Fairness Doctrine—a policy that hasn't been enforced in more than 30 years—might be red meat for the base, but it has no basis in reality."

"The goal of this FCC study is to collect data that will reveal whether communities are receiving the information they want and need—information that is critical to their health, security and stability. At no time has the FCC purported to make any judgments about what broadcasters should cover. However, the answers to the researcher's questions may reveal whether there is a meaningful correlation between ownership and the issues actually being covered in the community.

"This study is a very small step forward in addressing the FCC's decades-long and dismal record on minority ownership. I wish our leaders on Capitol Hill and at the FCC were less concerned with scoring cheap political points and more concerned with the fact that there are currently zero black-owned, full-power TV stations in the country. That's a real problem that needs to be addressed."

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.