Republicans See Fairness Doctrine in FCC Critical Information Needs Study

Says FCC has no business probing news bias and story selections

All the Republican members of the House Communications Subcommittee have written FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler asking him to suspend a study launched before he took over that they say is a stealth reintroduction of "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," they wrote in a letter on Dec. 10. "The commission has no business probing the news media’s editorial judgment and expertise."

Among a flurry of activity in the last days under acting FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn, the FCC last month said it would field test a study of critical information needs as part of an effort to lower barriers to entry to minorities and small businesses. But the Republicans don't like the questions the FCC wants to ask. "The proposed design for the CIN study shows a startling disregard for not only the bedrock constitutional principles that prevent government intrusion into the press and other news media, but also for the lessons learned by the Commission's experience with the Fairness Doctrine.

The doctrine required the FCC to seek out both sides of controversial issues. The FCC stopped enforcing it more than a quarter century ago, but it remained on the books, a rallying cry for Republicans and an occasional threat from Democrats, until it was taken off the books in 2011, at the urging of then Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell.

Among the questions the study plans to ask, according to the lawmakers, include ones "to ascertain the process by which stories are selected, station priorities (for content, production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias," and much more.

They call the study goals inappropriate, saying the FCC has no business probing the news media about their editorial judgment, or prescribing a set amount of "critical information." They called the effort an "incursion by the government into the constitutionally protected operations of the professional news media."

They want an explanation of how such a study furthers the goal of reducing barriers to entry, why it applies to both regulated and non-regulated new media, and why Columbia, S.C. (Clyburn is a South Carolinian who went to school in Columbia). The FCC's Office of Communications Business Opportunities (OCBO) said it had picked the city because it was "a medium-sized market that is racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse," as well as the "ease of travel for data collection," and the "nearby school of communications/journalism."

The study actually predates Clyburn. The FCC said in February 2012 it was commissioning the study with an eye toward collecting evidence to support boosting media participation, including by lowering entry barriers to entrepreneurs and small businesses.

But Clyburn was a big backer of the study. She had been pushing for better data to support FCC actions on boosting minority and female ownership, data that will be necessary to buttress any affirmative action measures in court.

The Republican leaders have a raft of other questions they want answered by Jan. 10, and for the chairman to put the effort on ice until then.

Look for the issue to come up in the subcommittee's FCC oversight hearing with the five commissioners Dec. 12.

An FCC spokesperson declined comment.