Opinion

What was the FCC newsroom 'survey' really about?

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Byron York,First Amendment,Media,FCC

When controversy erupted over the FCC's media-study/article/2544410">now-suspended plan to question journalists in newsrooms around the country, some conservative critics saw a grossly unconstitutional attempt to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine. Others saw a grossly unconstitutional attempt to press the Obama administration agenda on a broad range of issues. But the FCC's action may have, in fact, been something different: an attempt -- still grossly unconstitutional in its method -- to lay a foundation for a new government push to increase minority ownership of the nation's media outlets.

A key advocate of the project to assess whether news organizations are meeting government-defined "critical information needs" was Mignon Clyburn, an Obama-appointed FCC commissioner and for part of last year the acting chair of the FCC. Clyburn, who is the daughter of powerful House Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, has long advocated more minority ownership in the media. But she has often reminded colleagues that to make the case for policies that would increase minority ownership, proponents need more empirical information to support their contention that more diverse ownership would be better than what exists today. For example, if a study showed that the existing media structure is not meeting the "critical information needs" of minorities and women in America, proponents could use it to buttress the case that government should enact policies to make sure more television and radio stations end up in the hands of minorities and women.

The "critical information needs," or CIN, study appears to have been an effort to gather material to support Clyburn's position. "The FCC needs better data 'hard and fast' to create policy that would increase the number of minority-owned broadcast stations, said acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn at the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters conference," reported the trade publication Communications Daily last October. The article went on: "Clyburn ... briefed attendees on several proposals at the FCC and in Congress that might address the difficulties of minority broadcasters, but she said the FCC's collection of data is a prerequisite for changes. 'A complete picture of the media landscape is necessary to entertain ... any major policy adjustment in the short term,' she said."

Part of getting that "complete picture," Clyburn argued, was determining what women and minorities most "need" from media reporting. And if they aren't getting it from the existing media structure -- well, that's why things should change. That's where the CIN study came in. "[W]e are especially interested in whether the critical information needs of all Americans are being met," Clyburn said in February 2012. "Does limited participation in the communications industry by women and minorities have an impact on whether all Americans have their critical information needs met? [The FCC] is committed to answering this question."

Clyburn argued the same thing still earlier, in December 2011. "The [FCC] needs more data," she said then. "The factual information that the Commission currently has is incomplete if developing policies to promote greater female and minority ownership is still a priority."

From all appearances, Clyburn's goal was more minority ownership — not a new Fairness Doctrine. In her July 2009 confirmation hearing, she said "the Fairness Doctrine should not be reinstated in any form, any way, shape or form." She added that, "The FCC, I believe, is not in the business of censoring speech or content on the basis of political views and opinions." But that did not mean she was not looking to change media content on the basis of her political views and opinions. She just advocated doing it by changing media ownership rather than overt Fairness Doctrine-style regulation.

To effect that change, Clyburn started with a method -- sending government contractors into newsrooms to question editors, reporters and other journalists on their decision-making -- that trampled all over First Amendment protections. Now, after the uproar, the FCC has put that study on hold and pledged not to question journalists. But Clyburn -- who herself co-owned a media outlet, an African-American newspaper in Charleston, for more than a dozen years -- will undoubtedly find another path toward her goal.

This story was first published at 05:55 a.m.

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