On December 10, 2013, Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and several other members of the Communications and Technology subcommittee (including subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR)) sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler asking about the FCC’s announcement that it would soon commence a field test of its “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” (“CIN Study”) in Columbia, South Carolina.  As we explained previously, the CIN Study will involve a detailed content analysis of broadcasts, newspaper articles, and website postings to determine the extent to which these media cover particular topics that researchers have identified as serving “critical information needs.”  It will also involve researchers questioning media owners, managers, and employees regarding how media outlets determine what stories to cover and how to present information to the public.  As such, it suggests a renewed interest on the part of the FCC in the inner workings of broadcast station and newspaper editorial decision-making.

The Commission has stated that it intends for the study to inform a report to Congress regarding barriers to market entry and participation by entrepreneurs and other small businesses that is required by Section 257 of the Communications Act.  The December 10 letter, however, suggests that the FCC may have other motives.  Among other things, the letter cautions that the CIN Study may instead be a veiled effort to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC has not enforced since 1987 and which the Commission formally repealed in 2011.  In addition, the letter characterizes the study as an attempt to “control the political speech of journalists,” and states that such action is “wrong” and, “at bottom[,] an incursion by the government into the constitutionally protected operations of the professional news media.” 

Chairman Upton and his co-signers have requested that the Commission respond to a number of specific questions, including the following:

  • how the statutory language of Section 257 provides authority for the study and what, if any, other provisions, provide statutory authority;
  • what other purposes the CIN Study will serve, and in what other proceedings the FCC intends to use it;
  • the steps the Commission will take to ensure that the CIN Study respects First Amendment principles;
  • how, if at all, the FCC intends to use the study in the Quadrennial Review proceeding;
  • how the Commission will apply the CIN Study results, including whether it plans to endorse the study’s results and recommendations or further regulate broadcast journalism;
  • the amount that the FCC will spend on the field test, and how that amount will impact the cost of later phases, in relation to the $900,000 figure the Commission has stated it will spend on the study; and
  • how the FCC changed the study design in response to comments previously received, and why it selected Columbia, SC as an appropriate field test market.

The letter requests that Chairman Wheeler answer these questions by January 10, and in any event before initiating the planned field testing.  TVNewsCheck reports that during a hearing before the House Communications and Technology subcommittee today, Wheeler responded to questions about the CIN Study by stating that “[t]his is not an effort to influence the media” and indicating that the study is simply an effort to gather facts.  We will be watching for the FCC Chairman’s written response to the letter, and will keep you informed.

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