UW journalism center defends involvement in ‘inappropriate’ FCC study


By M.D. Kittle |Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Under fire for its involvement in a controversial — and now suspended — Federal Communications Commission study criticized for First Amendment creeping, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has issued a statement on behalf of its Center for Communication and Democracy, presumably to clear the air about its part in the study.

The statement, released Monday evening, notes that the FCC recently shut down its Critical Information Needs, or CIN, pilot study, set to launch this spring in Columbia, S.C., after conservative critics in particular voiced concerns that some of the questions to be asked in newsrooms were “inappropriate and improperly directed at media owners and journalists.”

That may be putting it mildly.

USA Today’s Rem Rieder doesn’t.

OBAMA’S LOBBYIST: FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is a former lobbyist for big cable and wireless companies. His commission has been on the hot seat of late for a proposed Critical Information Needs study that critics say is just more government treading on First Amendment rights.

He bills the FCC’s plan to launch a the survey a “journalism fiasco.” The study would investigate, among other areas of examination, “the process by which stories are selected,” how news outlets are fulfilling “critical information needs” and if there is “perceived station bias.”

Even for a Democrat-controlled FCC serving in a Democrat administration that has been downright prickly about opposition to its agenda (See: Internal Revenue Service and AP phone records monitoring), the study screams of government intrusion.

Rieder rates the study as a “misguided plan to stick its unwelcome nose into newsrooms of America and explore how journalists are doing their jobs.” That’s a particularly troubling prospect for broadcast news outlets, which must go through the FCC licensure process to exist.

“How anyone even came up with this idea, let alone how it was put into motion, is hard to fathom,” Rieder wrote in a piece published Monday. “Not to go all (tea party) on you, but those questions are none of the government’s business. The last thing we need is journalism cops flooding into newsrooms to check up on how the sausage is being made. That’s particularly true when the journalism cops are dispatched by the outfit that grants licenses to television and radio stations.”

“Fortunately, the FCC, under heavy fire — particularly in the conservative media and on Capitol Hill — for this boneheaded, intrusive initiative, is now in full retreat mode,” he added.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, according to spokeswoman Shannon Gilson, “agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required.” Wheeler told lawmakers the commission has no intention of “regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study,” according to Gilson’s statement.

UW’s Center for Communication and Democracy participated in completing a literature review for the FCC, which provided information used in designing the study, according to the statement from the university.

“Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Lewis Friedland, director of the center, is the lead author of a 2012 study commissioned by the FCC whose full title is ‘Review of the Literature Regarding Critical Information Needs of the American Public,’” the university added.

The study’s co-authors include Carola Weil of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism; Ernest Wilson, now at American University; Phil Napoli of Rutgers University; and Katya Ogyanova, a USC graduate student at the time.

It was an examination of roughly 1,000 pieces of literature in the fields of communication, urban planning, economics, health, the environment, political science and other allied fields concerning the information needs of Americans, according to UW. In the end, roughly 500 articles were included in the review.

“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,” wrote columnist Byron York of the Washington Examiner. “For example, might the FCC standards that journalists must meet on the environment look something like the Obama administration’s environmental agenda? Might standards on economic opportunity resemble the president’s inequality agenda?”

Ajit Pai, part of the commission’s Republican minority, wrote an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal lambasting the FCC for attempting to meddle in news coverage.

“An enterprising regulator could run wild with a lot of these topics,” Pai told York. “The implicit message to the newsroom is they need to start covering these eight categories in a certain way or otherwise the FCC will go after them.”

The study concluded that the “rapidly changing information environment in the U.S. opens new opportunities but also creates potential new problems and barriers in the meeting of local community information needs,” according to the UW statement. “It recommended a broader study of local community information environments.”

Critics question, who decides what information a local community needs?

The study, according to the statement, was vetted by a broad panel of scholars at the FCC itself, “as well as by representatives of industry including but not limited to representatives of the National Association of Broadcasters, the telecommunications industries, and others.”

UW’s Center for Communications and Democracy received $20,000 for the work from the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at USC, to which it was a subcontractor. The sum represented the majority of its recent research funding.

A recent report by right-leaning CNS News notes the schools involved in the FCC study have strong ties to liberal billionaire George Soros Open Society Foundation, receiving more than more than $3.7 million from OSF since 2000.

“The University of Wisconsin-Madison got a whopping $1,672,397 from Soros between 2000 and 2012. The university also offers OSI-sponsored grants, scholarships and fellowships,” CSN reports.

For now, the pilot program is on hold, at least until a new study design is final, according to the FCC.

“Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America’s newsrooms is false,” the agency said in its 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.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org

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