Earlier this week, FCC commissioner Ajit Pai raised the red flag over a study the agency planned to launch that would have “studied” the issue of editorial bias — even though the agency isn’t supposed to meddle in content decisions at all. The study would have surveyed newspapers, too, which don’t even fall under the FCC’s area of jurisdiction. After Pai blew the whistle on this effort, FCC chair Tom Wheeler may be retreating, reports Ad Week:
The Federal Communications Commission is quietly changing course on a controversial study after parts of the methodology were roundly criticized by GOP lawmakers and commissioner Ajit Pai for encroaching into editorial decisions and content at TV stations.
The Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs, which aimed to help the commission figure out how to lower entry barriers for minorities in broadcasting, may now be on hold. At the very least, the controversial sections of the study will be revisited under new chairman Tom Wheeler and incorporated into a new draft.
Regardless of the study’s intent, it’s hard to fathom why the FCC sent its minions into newsrooms of the stations it licenses and ask questions about how stations exercise their First Amendment right.
The vacillation from Wheeler on the “study” comes after accusations from House Republicans that Wheeler is trying to manipulate regulatory power to create a “Fairness Doctrine 2.0” while bypassing Congress:
House Republicans made a similar accusation in December, claiming the FCC was working on a “Fairness Doctrine 2.0.”
“Given the widespread calls for the commission to respect the First Amendment and stay out of the editorial decisions of reporters and broadcasters, we were shocked to see that the FCC is putting itself back in the business of attempting to control the political speech of journalists,” Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote in a letter to the FCC.
“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.’ “
The FCC has no jurisdiction over editorial choices of news outlets, not even in broadcast media. Their authority is over the use of broadcast frequencies and equipment designed to utilize them. This “study” looks very much like a means to proclaim a crisis as an excuse to expand the agency’s jurisdiction, especially with the inclusion of newspapers as part of the study.
Editorial bias certainly exists, and we criticize it on a regular basis. That’s where the issue belongs — in the marketplace, not as a government-controlled command information economy. That threatens everything that the First Amendment promises, and puts the government nose squarely in the ability to freely speak and argue. If Tom Wheeler is that concerned about editorial bias, let him quit the FCC and open up his own media outlet to compete. Otherwise, as Michael Graham says (a little more colorfully than I do), editorial decisions at media outlets are none of his damned business, nor that of the executive branch of the federal government.