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FCC Prepares To Question Journalists

By Jessica Berardino
7-24-13 FCC Commissioner Pai Visit (7)
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PITTSBURGH (NewsRadio 1020 KDKA) – Last May, the FCC proposed an initiative to bring the federal government in to media newsrooms across the country. The agency plans to send researchers to ask questions of reporters, editors and station managers.

The focus of the Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs, or CIN, is to determine how news is gathered and reported on in certain markets. They aim to understand how stories are selected and then rated on a scale of importance. But above all, they aim to determine the perceived station bias and the perceived responsiveness to the under-served community.

In a recent opinion editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Commissioner Ajit Pai expresses his concern with this study and the cost of breaking people’s First Amendment rights. He wrote this piece to “simply raise public awareness.”

“The study is relevant to the FCC’s obligation to report to Congress every three years on barriers that entrepreneurs and small businesses face in the communications industry,” said Pai. “My greater concern is that the government, either deliberately or inadvertently, is shaping news coverage by possibly intimidating people in the media business to cover certain stories or not to cover certain stories in certain ways, and that’s really not what the FCC’s all about in my opinion.”

Pai explained that an initial contractor was assigned the task of creating this study and some of the parameters were already included. Otherwise, he is unclear on how the parameters were developed but agrees they need changed.

“The license granted by the FCC is in the public interest and what’s in the public interest is not necessarily for every single news outlet to cover the exact same stories the exact same way,” said Pai. “Part of what makes America great, I would argue, in the last several years is that you’ve seen a great deal of competition where people decide what stories they think are important and they have to convince the marketplace or some portion of the marketplace that those views are worth hearing about.”

“For the government to step in and figure say, ‘Okay, this market is dysfunctional we control the airwaves and you’re going to have to cover stories as we see fit,’ that’s going to be counterproductive in the end, in addition I would argue unconstitutional,” said Pai.

Since the FCC doesn’t technically have authority in the newsrooms of newspapers, they plan on confronting those places and addressing their management with the request to come in and talk to their employees. Again, they’ll be addressed similar questions like, ‘why do you choose a certain story,’ ‘have you ever wanted to report on a story that was turned down by management, and why.’

Tribune Review’s Editorial Page Editor, Colin McNickle, views this as an intimidation factor and a continuing bullying of the media. He considers this very ‘Vladamir Putin’-like, “unacceptable.”

“You say you want a revolution, this is intimidation, totalitarianism, tyranny, they can’t get the job done on their own so they want to go out and they want to control the media now,” said McNickle. “They’ve tried to control and command the economy, now they want to control the message, this is outrageous.”

Further explanation discovered that if a station decides to keep their employees confidential there are other ways to get around that barrier. For example, they could make personal calls to employees and ask the questions from there. Overall, every employee must either agree or disagree to give out information, the boss just can’t make the decision for everyone.

“I’m certainly going to remain vigilant to make sure however it’s tweaked or ideally just withdrawn all together, again mindful of our constitutional freedoms,” said Pai.

The American Center for Law and Justice is a “conservative Supreme Court law firm” committed to “defend constitutional liberties served by law.” The ACLJ has developed a petition against the FCC’s study and within 24 hours they had over 45,000 signatures.

Click the link to see the petition: http://aclj.org/free-speech-2/no-government-monitors-in-newsrooms

Senior Counsel and Director of Digital Advocacy David French says that this study aims to gather what people’s perceived information needs are verse the actual information they need.

“The FCC is saying we know what you need to know and we’re going to do a study to determine if you’re learning what you actually need to know,” said French. “The Obama Administration seems to be bent on figuring out, using the federal government, to figure out and limit it’s core opposition.”

Some of the choices included in the study are common sense like crime topics. Crime will always top the news for the day because people are most interested in that subject. But French explains that things like climate change or environmental coverage seem to be deliberately ideological.

“The road map here is pretty darn clear, the road map is we’re going to do this study that’s going to show that what people actually hear is not what they need to hear,” said French. “And then there will be proposed regulations to address that path.”

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