Congress Tries Intimidating FCC to Drop Information Needs Study

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced it was preparing to conduct a test of its protocol for a "multi-market study on critical information needs" in Columbia, South Carolina. The study proposal suggests a two-pronged approach: the first is a "media market census" which will look at broadcast, newspaper, and online news content in sample markets around the country. The second prong is a "community ecology study" in which surveys will be conducted to "measure community members’ actual and perceived critical information needs." This will be coupled with "in-depth neighborhood interviews" involving actual citizens.
With studies like these, the devil is in the details. There’s no clear definition of what "critical information needs" actually are, and while the proposal plans to focus on these needs from the perspective of "vulnerable/disadvantaged populations," these are also not clearly defined. Sample-size is also key: this particular study will look at six media markets—two large, two medium, and two small—and we still don’t know what other five markets will be involved.
This is not the FCC’s first foray into this sort of research. In 2011 the agency published a similar study which looked at the effect of broadband penetration (among many other factors) on citizens’ ability to access reliable, meaningful information about the communities in which they live. Neither this study nor the proposed one have any particular regulatory proposal attached to them, which is fine—one of the jobs of expert regulatory agencies like the FCC is to do research like this. And while much of the agency’s research is imperfect (poor methodology, faulty premises, and political meddling by FCC Chairpeople are primary culprits) it’s a necessary evil in the crafting of anything resembling meaningful media policy.
But don’t tell that to Congress. This week, 16 Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee—the body in the House of Representatives with direct legislative oversight of the FCC—sent a letter to FCC Chair Tom Wheeler urging him to kill this research. They claim that the FCC is looking to institute a "Fairness Doctrine 2.0," which they believe violates journalists’ First Amendment right to report.
The problem is, assessing the information needs of American citizens, especially those most impoverished or vulnerable, has nothing to do with requiring broadcasters to present multiple sides of controversial political issues. The Fairness Doctrine, which was effectively killed nearly 20 years ago (though not formally deleted until 2011), has long been a right-wing bugaboo. And like the thugs they are, House Republicans are using unsubstantiated fear to pressure Chairman Wheeler and the FCC into dropping this latest study.
They’re also using a long-standing strategy to try and shape FCC policy through the power of the purse. Since Congress controls the funding of expert agencies like the FCC, the unspoken threat in this communiqué is one of, "cross us and we’ll cut you."
This is not the first time the power of the purse has be exercised—and it certainly won’t be the last. But the fact that it’s being used in such a knee-jerk fashion, coupled with claims that have no basis in reality relative to what the FCC proposes to do, speaks volumes about the brokenness of Congress these days.