Not-all-that-Critical Information Needs?

Last month, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai took to the editorial pages in the Wall Street Journal to voice his objections to a controversial proposed FCC study, titled “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” or “CIN” for short. The study’s stated purpose was to collect information about the “critical information needs” of Americans, access and barriers to entry to those critical information needs, the media “ecology,” and media fulfillment of (or lack thereof) critical information needs.  While the proffered objectives appear innocuous enough, Mr. Pai’s editorial incited negative backlash against the study after revealing a controversial and invasive proposed methodology that he contends involves improper scrutiny of media groups’ selection of stories. A mere eighteen days after Mr. Pai’s editorial was published, the FCC announced that it had suspended the study.

The FCC abruptly pulls the plug on a proposed newsroom study after Commissioner’s editorial sparks backlash.

Mr. Pai took issue with the study’s intrusive proposed methodology that would have gone well beyond merely investigating the nation’s critical information needs and resulted in the government “pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.” The controversial approach, Pai states, would have included, among other things, interviewing media personnel about their story selection process, their organization’s “‘news philosophy,’ and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information.” Additional proposed questions would have sought more information about why certain stories were rejected and the reasoning behind the organization’s selection of stories. That questioning, while technically voluntary, may not seem coercive, but in reality “may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore,” given that “they would be out of business without an FCC license, which must be renewed every eight years.” Mr. Pai, and the wave of supporters that his editorial garnered, maintain that the study would have resulted in improper government intervention in media coverage that would threaten to infringe on the freedom of press. Moreover, his editorial draws attention to the suspect relation between the study’s methods and goals.

Proponents of the study argued its value as a legitimate and useful means to carry out the FCC’s statutory mandateto identify and eliminate, through regulatory action, market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications and information services.” Promoting the study in 2012, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn went so far as to tout it’s “promise of enabling [all citizens] to live safer and healthier lives by highlighting any challenges and exploring a host of opportunities for full access to educational, employment, information and business opportunities in addition to empowering them in their civic involvement.”

With all this professed promise, why then the sudden reversal?

The Commission mandate and the goal of improving public information undoubtedly have their merits, but once Mr. Pai’s editorial shed greater light on the subject, apparently quite a few people, including FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, a former proponent of the study, agreed that the FCC’s proposal overstepped its bounds and bore little relation to its stated goals. Within three weeks, Chairman Wheeler attempted to justify the study as part of the Commission’s statutory duties, before eventually issuing a statement expressing his “agree[ment] that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required,” and then ultimately cancelling the study entirely. Perhaps the study was not so critical after all. While many will disagree about the merits of the CIN study, the story offers a lesson of caution on imprudent government intervention and waste.