FCC: No intent to muzzle press

The Federal Communications Commission is trying to reassure House Republicans it has no plans to restrict the freedom of the press.

In a letter released Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee his commission “has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters.”

Wheeler defended new FCC research as the first step toward pinpointing “market barriers” that might affect the “diversity of media voices.” 

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Republicans expressed concern the FCC's study was an attempt "to control the political speech of journalists” by reviving the Fairness Doctrine, now-extinct rules that required radio and TV broadcasters to air opposing viewpoints on major issues.

Ajit Pai, a Republican commissioner at the FCC, raised alarms about the study.

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last week, Pai said the effort would “thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country.”

The FCC killed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and formally erased it from the books in 2011.

The agency's new study will focus on how “critical information needs” are reported.

In a field test scheduled this spring, the FCC is planning to ask journalists and station owners in Columbia, S.C., about their philosophy for covering the news and the way they select stories.

In his op-ed, Pai worried broadcast journalists would feel pressured to participate, since they depend on the FCC’s licenses to operate.

House Republicans weren’t entirely soothed by Wheeler’s letter.

In a statement, Energy and Commerce Chairmen Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), head of the Communications and Technology subcommittee, said “it is imperative that the FCC ensure that any study, with any agents acting on its behalf, stays out of newsrooms.”

“The courts have rightfully struck down the Fairness Doctrine, and any attempt to revive it, through study or any other means, should not be attempted by the FCC or any other government agency.” 

The FCC is required by law to study ways to eliminate barriers that may prevent some outlets from getting off the ground.

Studies in the past have looked at the history of broadcast license applications and the way minority and women-owned companies participate in spectrum auctions, among other issues.

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