FCC Throws In the Towel on Explosive Content Study
Intrusive media survey idea had people riled, but it was doomed from the start
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler

The Federal Communications Commission has pulled the plug on its plan to conduct an intrusive probe of newsrooms as part of a “Critical Information Needs” survey of local media markets.

However, a revised version of the survey could raise new concerns: that it will trade its now-kiboshed news questions for a demographic survey that might justify new race-based media ownership rulemaking.

“In the course of FCC review and public comment, concerns were raised that some of the questions may not have been appropriate,” the FCC announced in a statement Friday. “Chairman [Tom] Wheeler agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required. Last week, Chairman Wheeler informed lawmakers that that Commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study. Yesterday, the Chairman directed that those questions be removed entirely.”

The Critical Information Needs (CIN) survey has been a slow-burning controversy since ever since this reporter first revealed its existence in October 2013.

First Amendment supporters objected that the design of the survey would have had FCC representatives interrogating newsroom staffers about how they make coverage decisions and select (or spike) story ideas. Many commentators objected to the potential intimidation involved in such a survey.

The original plan of the survey would also have taken the FCC out of its traditional purview of regulating supposedly scarce airwaves. Because the CIN sought to discover “underserved” consumers in a variety of “media ecologies,” the survey would have included not only broadcast media but newspapers, blogs, and online news.

However, there have been consistent doubts that the survey was ever going to happen. In a December follow-up article I found that none of the major broadcast, print, or online media in Columbia, South Carolina – the market selected for the Critical Information Needs pilot study — had heard from either the FCC or Silver Spring, Md.-based Social Solutions International (SSI) the FCC’s contractor on the project.

Columbia media professionals, along with the South Carolina Broadcasters Association, reiterated Friday that the pilot survey never began.

“No one has been contacted in Columbia,” WLTX general manager Rich O’Dell told National Review Online Friday, prior to Wheeler’s announcement. “There’s been no official contact by anybody at the FCC or anywhere else.”

The CIN survey also came under fire from Congress. In December, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), along with Rep. Greg Walden (R., Ore.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications & Technology, wrote to Wheeler to express their concerns about the survey’s potential chilling effects.

The combination of congressional pushback and the apparent slow-walking of the survey led to wide speculation that Wheeler was not interested in the CIN proposal — which was concocted under former chairman Julius Genachowski and continued under interim chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.

The FCC, along with SSI, have consistently declined to comment on the CIN survey. But even before Friday’s walkback, Wheeler had conceded that the project was being revised in a response to Upton’s December letter released Thursday but dated February 14.