Wheeler: FCC Won't Regulate Journalist's Speech

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has told the chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee that the FCC "has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters" via its Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs, but says he is working on changes to the study to address those concerns.

That came in a letter to House E&C chair Fred Upton (R-Mich.), in response to a letter from the committee's Republican leadership and members asking the chairman to suspend the study since tit included provisions for "FCC funded agents to question the editorial decisions of journalists, producers, and other news professionals."

They saw that as the FCC putting itself back in the business of controlling political speech, the "back" being a reference to the former Fairness Doctrine requirement that broadcasters seek out opposing viewpoints on issues of importance.

Wheeler indicated that changes would be coming, but that that might change the cost of the study. He also pointed out that the study was launched to fulfill the FCC's statutory mandate to 'identify and eliminate "market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications services and information services."

The FCC has also been instructed by a federal appeals court to better justify initiatives to promote that diversity.

"My staff has engaged in a careful and thorough review of the Research Design with the contractor to ensure that the inquiries closely hew to [that] mandate," Wheeler wrote. "While the Research Design is a tool intended to help the Commission consider effective, pro-competitive policies that would encourage new entrants, its direction need not go beyond our responsibilities. We continue to work with the contractor to adapt the study in response to these concerns and expect to complete this work in the next few weeks. As the revisions that we may implement likely will require cost reassessments, we will provide you with further details regarding cost and methodology as soon as they are available."

The Republican leadership want those details to include that the study will stay away from newsroom decisionmaking.

“We are pleased to see chairman Wheeler recognizes the gravity of our concerns and has accordingly made progress toward ensuring that First Amendment protections remain in place for journalists,” said Upton and Communications Subcommittee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) of Wheeler's response. “Before moving forward, however, it is imperative that the FCC ensure that any study, with any agents acting on its behalf, stays out of newsrooms. The courts have rightfully struck down the Fairness Doctrine, and any attempt to revive it, through study or any other means, should not be attempted by the FCC or any other government agency.”

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.