FCC: The Towel’s Still There

The Federal Communications Commission has sort of abandoned a $900,000 study that would have surveyed news media—almost all from news organizations it does not oversee—to determine whether or not they were giving Americans information they need “no matter where they live or what financial resources they have” or what “barriers” in our “media ecologies” keep people from “accessing” it.

Announced in May 2013 and first reported on last fall, the pilot study would also have surveyed television and radio newsrooms to find out what stories they did and did not cover, as well as what stories they considered covering but didn’t.

Although such a project had never been proposed before, no one objected until early February, when an FCC commissioner wrote to oppose it in the Wall Street Journal.

Even then only a few, conservative news organizations objected, but it was enough to generate public outcry and sideline the project. On Feb. 21st, National Review’s News Editor Tim Cavanaugh, the first to report on the study, wrote a piece titled “FCC Throws in the Towel on Explosive Content Study.”

But it didn’t. The towel’s still there. The study is only on hold, and may simply morph in a different problematic direction. That’s a problem for all Americans, and for religious media, especially radio.

Why? Because if the survey was bad, the ideas behind it are worse.

The survey was meant to be the second half of a large project to determine what news organizations covered and why, so the FCC could ensure that all Americans, particularly “vulnerable/disadvantaged populations” were supplied with their  “Critical Information Needs.”

But it’s not the FCC’s job to ensure that any news medium anywhere does anything. Even content on radio and television delivered over airways, which the FCC owns and monitors, is not its business. The FCC regulates broadcasters’ business practices and equipment, and has no control over content except in narrow instances such as obscenity and foul language.

Online news sites are not the FCC’s business. Blogs and web sites are not the FCCs business. Newspapers are not the FCC’s business. Cable stations are not the FCC’s business.

So what was the FCC studying and why?

The “what” is fairly simple, although the scope is rather breathtaking. The FCC identified eight Critical Information Needs (CINs) of all Americans: emergency, health, education, transportation, economic opportunity, environment, civic, and political information. And according tot the FCC, every subgroup of Americans, not just Americans as a whole, needs to have its CINs met differently.

Most of these CINs are not the main subject of any newsroom — which tend to give sports and entertainment news a lot more coverage than transportation and education. Several vital information needs (food, God, child rearing, etc.) apparently are not “critical.” And several of the CINs are rarely, if ever, covered on specialty stations. Religious broadcasters rarely cover local civic meetings or economic opportunities. Sports news stations rarely cover general health and education stories.

The study would have analyzed all news in a target area (including cable televisions, blogs, area websites, and newspapers) to see how many stories addressed the CINs of lower, middle, and upper-middle-income white, African-American, Latino, and Asian people. After analyzing a target city’s data, the FCC would have surveyed news editors and reporters to find out what they covered, what they didn’t cover, and why.

What was the FCC going to do with this information? What was it going to tell a local newsroom that doesn’t give “enough” information about the environment to low-income Latinos, or to a radio station that didn’t provide “enough” health information to upper-middle-income African Americans?

No one knows for certain, but given the explosion of media sources on every subject and available to nearly every person on earth, the federal government’s need to ensure “overcoming barriers” and “access” to information is a hard sell. When people are tweeting news from the middle of revolutions, is it believable that middle-income Asian Americans don’t have access to information about transportation?

Most curious, and least remarked on, was an accompanying survey for the general public. It asked questions about what news media people suddenly faced a certain personal situation —  such as how to apply for food stamps, how to get health insurance, and how to research a suspected safety issue at a business where the employees speak only Spanish — would look at first. As no one in any of these situations would turn on the television or radio and hope a story about them just happened to come on, the FCC was looking for other information. Specifically, what non-FCC-controlled sources people use to find things out.


The FCC has not regulated content since the Fairness Doctrine, which required the nation’s broadcasters to cover all sides of any controversial issue and give equal time to political opponents, stopped being applied in 1987. But since then a major goal has been “diversification” of the news, first through so-called localization (which would have required all broadcast stations to be reviewed by boards of various ethnic and social minorities to ensure that they were covered fairly) and then, when that didn’t fly, by talk of reviving the Fairness Doctrine.

Broadcasters vigorously opposed both measures. This one? Not so much. But this sounds worse than either. It sounds like an attempt to “diversify” the airwaves by making a currently diverse radio and television media all cover the same eight things.

First Amendment lawyer Jordan Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, says the project “was an attempt at regulating the news to the standards the FCC wants, not with the news that has been most successful for broadcasters.”

Sekulow says he sees this issue as encroaching on freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Though he says religious broadcasters do not seem to have been specifically targeted, he says that conservative broadcasters have been a concern to the FCC and that religious broadcasters, particularly Evangelical Christians, tend to be conservative.

“This is not the end of the FCC attempts to meddle in the content of the news,” he says. “It’s a reminder to people that they have to be vigilant. It was the American people who stopped this survey.”

But it’s not stopped. It’s just been put back in a drawer for a while.  It’ll come back in another form soon enough — and next time, let’s hope someone notices sooner.

See the details of the shelved study here: http://transition.fcc.gov/bureaus/ocbo/FCC_Final_Research_Design_6_markets.pdf

Avatar photo


Gail D. Finke is an author and mother living in Cincinnati, where she writes for The Catholic Beat at Sacred Heart Radio.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage