- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission finds itself on the defensive over a proposed research project that critics say directly threatens First Amendment protections for the news media.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a Feb. 14 letter to congressional Republicans made public Thursday, defended the agency’s proposed “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” as part of its mandate to “promote the policies and purpose … favoring diversity of media voices. The FCC contract proposal calls for government investigators to explore the process by which stories are selected, as well as perceived bias at individual stations and perceived responsiveness by reporters and editors to “underserved” populations.

But the prospect of a government agency monitoring newsgathering decisions and editorial control has infuriated some critics and even sparked a public condemnation from one of the Republican appointees to the FCC itself.

Mr. Wheeler insisted in his letter the FCC has “no intention” of interfering in the editorial decision-making of broadcast stations and newspapers, but many remain unconvinced.

“I think it’s very onerous, it is a tremendous threat that they have in terms of the power of licensing,” said Dr. Roger Soenksen, a professor of media arts and design at James Madison University.

The skeptics note that the FCC is in charge of granting operating licenses to radio and broadcast stations, and the new data could influence their decisions whose license is renewed in years to come.

“They could sit down at the end of the licensing period and say you only had 25 percent of the stories that were positive about government, and they could pull licenses because they think the stories are biased,” he added.

Many critics have blasted the new study, saying that the study is a blatant affront to constitutional first amendment freedom of press protections.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican, and 15 GOP members of the committee wrote a blistering letter to Mr. Wheeler in December after learning of the FCC’s proposed study.

“It is wrong, it is unconstitutional, and we urge you to put a stop to this most recent attempt to engage the FCC as the ‘news police,’” they wrote.

Radio Television Digital News Association Chairman Vincent Duffy said in a statement, “There are many people, including myself, who believe our industry as a whole can and should do a much better job with what we decide to provide to our audiences. However, it is not the role of the government to make those decisions for us, and many of the inquiries [proposed in the study] make broadcasters justifiably uncomfortable.”

Congressional Republicans and some private critics see in the FCC study a plan to revive the much-disliked “Fairness Doctrine” by the Obama administration. The Fairness Doctrine, a law that required TV and radio broadcasters to give equal on-air time to both sides of a story or issue, was eliminated in 1987.

The Obama administration has stated that it does not plan to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, but many of the administration’s political opponents are not convinced.

The House Republicans’ letter said of the proposed study, “It is hard to read this and see it for anything other than what it is: Fairness Doctrine 2.0”

Added Mr. Soenksen, “The Fairness Doctrine was bad, [but] this is even worse.”

“You know they are going to use the data in some way. They wouldn’t do the study if they weren’t going to influence the media in some way to do something with the data.”

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