The Federal Communications Commission's decision to shelve plans for a study of how media newsrooms work has tamped down outrage from some conservative quarters but some alumni from a prominent participating university are still in an uproar.
The University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism was one of two institutes of higher learning the FCC commissioned to conduct a study of how media organizations gather and report the news. The other school was the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Several members of USC's Washington, D.C. alumni community, which includes prominent conservative attorneys, nonprofit leaders, politicians and journalists, want answers on why their alma mater was involved in a project critics fear could have been used to place new controls on the nation's newsrooms, and quell free speech.
USC, a large private school located in Los Angeles that is No. 23 on U.S. News & World Report's undergraduate school ranking list, was traditionally known as politically conservative, especially in the West Coast's mainly liberal academic world. In recent years, however, the campus has been changing as the school’s rising rankings and rigorous admissions policies attracted students of all political stripes.
The alumni are also voicing deep concerns about whether USC's relatively new president, Max Nikias, is deliberately trying to change its conservative reputation by involving the university in more liberal-oriented studies and programs. Nikias became president in 2010.
“The University of Southern California has transitioned from a place of higher education to a far left policy-setting organization,” said Richard Manning, a vice president at Americans for Limited Government, who graduated from USC in 1981 and served as president of the university's D.C. alumni club in the early 1990s.
“The latest reports that the School of Journalism was involved in the FCC intrusion into the reporting and editorial decisions of individual news outlets reveals just how much the University has lost its way from its original mission.
“President Max Nikias should be fired over this alone,” he continued, “but when you consider previous decisions to become a shill for the Affordable Care Act to the entertainment industry, there is no case to be made for his retention.”
Manning was referring to a $500,000 grant USC's Norman Lear Center Hollywood, Health & Society program received last fall from the California Endowment, a health-oriented nonprofit financed by the insurance industry. Critics say the money will be used to promote Obamacare in film and television, in a manner similar to product-placement marketing techniques for consumer brands.
Another former president of USC's D.C. alumni club, who requested anonymity, said the university's decisions to wade into more liberal territory is causing him to rethink his yearly financial commitment.
“I give the university money every year – and it absolutely will affect my decision this year,” the USC graduate said. He said the FCC study and the Norman Lear Center grant are projects that are “pretty contrary to what USC ought to be involved in” – especially if the FCC survey was going to to be used to try to control what the media should cover.
“That's kind of crazy – I assume the quest for the almighty dollar is pushing this. Times are tight and you can't get earmarks out of Congress anymore and so they're trying to find money anywhere they can,” said the USC graduate.
Boyd Rutherford, a 1990 graduate of USC's Gould School of Law who is currently running for lieutenant governor in Maryland, was more nuanced in his criticism, saying news of the university's involvement immediately drew his concern but that he would need to find out if the school knew how the FCC would use the information before he condemned it outright.
“It is disappointing if the university knew what the intent of the FCC was – if the intent was to go into newsrooms and ask questions – but we don't know what the FCC wanted to do with it,” he said.
The stated goal of the FCC survey was to determine if the “critical information needs” of the public are being met by modern media outlets. Democrats at the agency say they aren't planning to place any limits on press freedom or make a case for re-imposing the Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that broadcasters provide equal time to both sides of a debate from 1949 to 1987.
After news about the FCC survey first broke, the Washington Examiner's Byron York reported that the goal of the newsroom survey may have been different than originally believed - perhaps part of an effort to gather information for a new government campaign to increase minority ownership of the nation's media outlets.
One of the project's key advocates, York notes, is Mignon Clyburn, an Obama-appointed FCC commissioner who last year served as the agency's acting chair. Clyburn is also the daughter of Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the assistant House minority leader and a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
A USC spokeswoman side-stepped questions from the Examiner about how much the university knew about the FCC's intent, pointing to a statement it posted on the Annenberg School's website Tuesday.
Titled “USC Annenberg Position on Fact-Based Media Policy Research,” the statement said the school is proud that it won an open competition by the FCC “to lead a prominent group of scholars from top universities in conducting a literature review (of approximately 500 scholarly articles) regarding 'critical information needs' of the American public.”
“Our purpose was to provide and encourage fact-based, nonpartisan and rigorous analysis in support of policy-making at a time of sweeping changes in the media and in American society,” the school said in a six-paragraph statement.
It said the findings are helping the FCC meet its statutory mandate of issuing a triennial report to Congress about “the barriers that may prevent entrepreneurs and small businesses from competing in the media marketplace, and pursue policies that eliminate those barriers.”
“The literature review was the extent of USC Annenberg's involvement in the project,” the school added.
The spokeswoman also pointed to a Feb. 16 New York Times article about the grant to the USC Norman Lear Center that quoted its director as trying to push back against the notion that money would be used to fund pro-Obamacare propaganda. The Center recently held a Writers Guild of America East forum on the Affordable Care Act's place in comedy and drama.
“This is such a contentious issue – no one's pretending there will not be bitter on-screen clashes and disagreement as in life,” Center director Martin Kaplan told the Times.
But the article noted that the panel discussion did not include vocal Obamacare opponents. Instead, it was moderated by Kaplan, along with Writers Guild president Michael Winship, the Center for Public Integrity's Wendell Potter, a former insurance executive, and Julie Bataille, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
It's lineups like those that have some USC alums fighting mad and taking shots at Nikias, as they recall what they regard as "the good old days" under previous USC President Steven Sample.
“I'm shocked and disappointed that USC keeps getting its name dragged through the mud for doing the bidding of the most outrageous Obama administration proposals,” said the Institute for Energy Research's Thomas Pyle, a USC alum. “This certainly didn't happen when Steven Sample was at the helm.”
White House correspondent Susan Crabtree is a graduate of USC's School of Journalism and a former Washington reporter for Variety.