It was an idea so frail, it quickly died from exposure. The Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs—or CIN, pronounced “sin,” for short—was the brainchild of Mignon Clyburn, a Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission and daughter of Rep. James Clyburn, the lone Democrat in South Carolina’s congressional delegation. Tim Cavanaugh, then of the Daily Caller, reported CIN’s existence in October, but it was a February 11 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that gave the study national prominence. The latter article’s author, Republican-appointed commissioner Ajit Pai, explained:
The purpose of the CIN, according to the FCC, is to ferret out information from television and radio broadcasters about “the process by which stories are selected” and how often stations cover “critical information needs,” along with “perceived station bias” and “perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.”
How does the FCC plan to dig up all that information? First, the agency selected eight categories of “critical information” such as the “environment” and “economic opportunities,” that it believes local newscasters should cover. It plans to ask station managers, news directors, journalists, television anchors and on-air reporters to tell the government about their “news philosophy” and how the station ensures that the community gets critical information.
The FCC also wants to wade into office politics.
One question for reporters is: “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your customers that was rejected by management?” Follow-up questions ask for specifics about how editorial discretion is exercised, as well as the reasoning behind the decisions.
Participation would ostensibly be voluntary, but as Pai noted, “the FCC’s queries may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore,” given that they depend on the commission for their licenses. At the same time, the FCC didn’t intend to limit its inquiry to news organizations within its regulatory bailiwick. The CIN would include newspapers too. A “pilot study” was planned for Columbia, South Carolina, the Clyburns’ hometown.
It took all of ten days after Pai’s op-ed ran for Tom Wheeler, the FCC’s chairman, to repent and partly disavow the CIN. “Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America’s newsrooms is false,” Wheeler said in a statement. “The FCC looks forward to fulfilling its obligation to Congress to report on barriers to entry into the communications marketplace, and is currently revising its proposed study to achieve that goal.” But he offered assurances it wouldn’t ask about news content.
In a report on Wheeler’s climb-down, Cavanaugh, now with National Review, speculated that the CIN would still be used to gather data in support of “race-based media ownership rules.” That is a priority of Mignon Clyburn, whose bio on the commission website describes her as having “pushed for media ownership rules that reflect the demographics of America.” On February 28, the commission announced it would abandon the study altogether.
What is perhaps most telling about the embrace and renunciation of the CIN is who objected to it—and who didn’t. Congressional Republicans, led by Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked tough questions of Wheeler after his November confirmation. The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group, filed a comment with the commission voicing its concern “that the Research Design would have the Commission tread into the constitutionally sensitive area of newsgathering and reporting when the agency itself has taken pains for decades to avoid doing so.”
Fox News covered the FCC plan extensively. “Now for a chilling story no matter what your politics,” said Special Report anchorman Bret Baier in introducing a February 19 segment by Shannon Bream: “The federal government wants to know how and why the news media select which stories they cover.” In an online op-ed the next day, the network’s Howard Kurtz wondered: “What on earth is the FCC thinking?” Kurtz described the effort as “Big Brother-ish” and declared: “The last thing we need is the government mucking around with news content.”
Kurtz concluded: “If George W. Bush’s FCC had tried this, it would be a front-page story.” In the event, mainstream coverage of the CIN was characterized by sins of omission. “NBC, ABC, and CBS completely ignored the potential threat to press freedom,” Kyle Drennen noted on the Media Research Center’s NewsBusters.org website. The Associated Press skipped the story too, according to Drennan’s colleague Tom Blumer. There was no outraged editorial in the New York Times, nor even any news coverage. The Washington Post ignored it until Wheeler backed off, when the paper gave it 600 words in the Style section and a couple of blog posts.
What accounted for the mainstream media’s lack of concern? Blogger Elizabeth Scalia gave the obvious answer of partisanship, which she framed as a response to Kurtz’s what-were-they-thinking question:
They’re thinking an obsequious press that couldn’t be bothered to sustain outrage over intrusions into its own phone and internet records won’t have a problem with the government parking itself into the newsroom.
They’re thinking that if the mainstream press could forgive them for considering espionage charges against a member of the press—for doing what reporters are supposed to do—and then re-commence their habitual boot-licking, there is no real risk of media folk suddenly calling out a “red line,” or even being able to identify one.…
They know that half the people in the newsroom are either married to (or social buddies with) influential members of this government, and that everyone is all comfy and nicely settled in for the revolution.
In addition, journalism schools have largely embraced a liberal political agenda. Byron York of the Washington Examiner reported that two of them actually helped concoct the CIN:
The FCC commissioned the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Communication and Democracy to do a study defining what information is “critical” for citizens to have. The scholars decided that “critical information” is information that people need to “live safe and healthy lives” and to “have full access to educational, employment, and business opportunities,” among other things.
The study identified eight “critical needs”: information about emergencies and risks; health and welfare; education; transportation; economic opportunities; the environment; civic information; and political information.
It’s not difficult to see those topics quickly becoming vehicles for political intimidation. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that they wouldn’t. For example, might the FCC standards that journalists must meet on the environment look something like the Obama administration’s environmental agenda?
Then again, there’s a chicken-and-egg question here. Some newspapers adopted a policy against acknowledging dissent from global-warmist orthodoxy over a decade ago, when Barack Obama was but a state senator from Illinois.
Fox managed to find one journalism professor who sounded like an old-school free-press champion. “Whenever I hear of the government going into a newsroom to do something other than deliver coffee, I become frightened,” American University’s John Watson told the network. “Because the government should not, as a general rule, be any part of journalism.”
Amen to that. Is there a way to reawaken such an independent attitude among the broader press corps and in the journalism schools? Apart from electing a Republican president, probably not.