A Wall Street Journal op-ed written by a member of the Federal Communications Commission expressing his concern over the FCC’s plan to visit newsrooms to ask questions about reporting procedures has prompted outrage – mainly from the rightwing media – this past week.
In his article, Ajit Pai, a commissioner at the FCC, discussed the upcoming “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs.” Headed by the Obama administration, the FCC planned to drop by hundreds of news organizations to ask questions about what they report about and why. He worried that the leading and focused questions that have been prepared would pressure outlets into reporting specific stories and compromise the freedom of the press.
Specifically, the FCC would examine the new organizations’ coverage of eight subjects it deemed “critical information,” including politics, the environment, the economy and public health. Some questions seem especially probing: “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your [viewers, listeners or readers] that was rejected by management? What was the reason given for the decision?”
The negative press has been enough for Tom Wheeler, head of the FCC, to release a statement on the matter: “The commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters by way of this research design, any resulting study, or through any other means.” He added that the process will be reviewed and amended. Presently, it appears that the FCC will move forward with dropping by newsrooms for interviews, but the survey will no longer contain questions about their philosophies on reporting.
In truth, the survey in itself is not problematic. The corporate-owned media has distorted journalism and should be studied accordingly. Who wouldn’t like to know what’s going on behind the scenes at America’s biggest newsrooms? Who wouldn’t like to know why nonessential stories are getting airtime over issues that actually matter?
The real problem is the group that is asking the questions. Whether or not the FCC ever intended to influence the way newsrooms reported with this survey, the intrusion certainly poses a conflict of interest. We have a free press to help keep our government in check, not vice versa.
While this research is important, it needs to be conducted by independent media watchdog groups. Moreover, though I personally agree with the sorts of things that the FCC has defined as “critical information,” I reject the idea that a government agency is getting to write these definitions.
Even if the FCC is better intentioned than the conservative media has given it credit for, it still needs to back off of newsrooms even more. The mainstream media may be somewhat of a mess, but government intrusions like this survey will probably only further compromise press freedoms moving forward rather than fixing anything.