FCC pulls plug on press study

CNN

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is pulling the plug on a controversial study that critics warned would have threatened the First Amendment right to freedom of the press.

A spokeswoman with the commission said on Friday that a pilot version of the study would be suspended and redesigned so that journalists would not have to answer the FCC’s questions about their work.

“To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, S.C., pilot study,” Shannon Gilson said in a statement.

“The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final. Any subsequent market studies conducted by the FCC, if determined necessary, will not seek participation from or include questions for media owners, news directors or reporters.”

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The study on “critical information needs” had sparked concern from the public, especially Republicans, who said it seemed like an attempt to control journalists’ speech.

The pilot study would have asked journalists about their “news philosophy” and the way that they selected stories.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said that the commission never intended to muzzle journalists. 

Nevertheless, he “agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required,” Gilson said on Friday.

Republican members of Congress worried that the FCC was trying to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which required that news outlets cover controversial subjects from both points of view. The doctrine was abandoned in 1987 and formally taken off the FCC’s books in 2011.

Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the FCC, wrote an op-ed last week worrying that the effort would “thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country.”

He cheered the FCC’s change in course on Friday.

“This is an important victory for the First Amendment,” he said in a statement. “And it would not have been possible without the American people making their voices heard. I will remain vigilant that any future initiatives not infringe on our constitutional freedoms.”

Under the law, the FCC needs to periodically report to Congress outlining barriers that can make it hard for some small media businesses to get into the market.  

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