In response to a December 2013 letter sent by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Wheeler has publicly confirmed that the FCC “has no intention of regulating the political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters.”  Chairman Wheeler’s letter response and an accompanyingstatement were issued in response to suggestions by Congressman Upton and others that certain aspects of the FCC’s planned “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” (CIN Study) sought to delve too far into the inner workings of editorial decision-making in broadcast and newspaper newsrooms. 

As we explained previously, Chairman Upton and his co-signers questioned, in particular, the propriety of seeking information from media owners, managers, and employees regarding how media outlets determine what stories to cover and how to present information to the public.  Although the FCC proposed the CIN Study to gather information needed to report to Congress on market entry barriers, the research design for the study as initially proposed would have asked questions about topics such as how media outlets select stories for coverage, including the extent to which reporters and anchors have input and the degree of influence held by various decision-makers.  The December letter from members of Congress suggested these aspects of the CIN Study were an attempt to “control the political speech of journalists.”  Shortly after the Congressional letter became public, Chairman Wheeler explained that the CIN Study was not an effort to influence media but, rather, an effort to gather facts. 

In Chairman Wheeler’s written response, he explains that following additional review, FCC staff determined that certain aspects of the research design went “beyond [the FCC’s] responsibilities.”  The accompanying FCC statement explains, further, that Chairman Wheeler “agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required,” and thus has directed those questions “be removed entirely.”  As a result of these modifications, “media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in” the planned pilot study in Columbia, South Carolina, and the FCC will not seek their participation in any further market studies the agency may deem necessary. 

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai had previously criticized the CIN Study, echoing many of the concerns articulated in Chairman Upton’s letter.  Following Chairman Wheeler’s response, Commissioner Pai issued an official statement welcoming the announcement regarding the proposed revisions to the research design, proclaiming the changes to comprise “an important victory for the First Amendment.”  Yet, sources report that Commissioner Pai still wants the FCC to go further and halt the study entirely.

It is not clear what the FCC will do next.  Section 257 of the Communications Act requires the agency to report to Congress regarding “market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications services and information services.”  The FCC had also suggested the CIN Study would inform its statutorily mandated quadrennial review of the media ownership rules.  The agency has not yet completed its 2010 quadrennial review, and the 2014 review lies on the horizon.  And many aspects of the CIN Study as initially proposed appeared to build on the 2011 recommendations of the Working Group on the Information Needs of Communities.  Chairman Wheeler’s response letter explains that the Commission expects to complete revisions to the CIN Study research design within the next few weeks, at which time the agency’s true focus should become more apparent.