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FCC suspends study that sought information on newsroom operations

The Federal Communications Commission has suspended plans for a survey of television and radio stations after concerns were raised inside and outside the commission about questions in the survey regarding editorial practices in newsrooms.

The Critical Information Needs study, which was to start this spring with a pilot test in Columbia, S.C, included questions about how stations determine what news stories to cover. It also sought insight into debates between journalists and management over news coverage.

The study, done every three years for Congress, is about eliminating barriers that discourage entrepreneurs and small-business owners from entering the industry.

The questions regarding newsroom practices were seen by some as inappropriate coming from a government agency.

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One of the loudest critics was FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who last week wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal blasting the survey.

"The CIN study is a first step down the same dangerous path," Pai wrote.

The FCC's effort was also criticized by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and other members of the committee.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in December, Upton and other lawmakers wrote that "the commission has no business probing the news media's editorial judgment and expertise." The committee members added that the survey is an "incursion by the government into the constitutionally protected operations of the professional news media."

On Friday, the FCC said Wheeler agreed that "survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required." An agency spokesman added that "any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America's newsrooms is false." 

Commissioner Pai said the decision to suspend the survey is "an important victory for the 1st Amendment."

The FCC plans to continue with the pilot test without the questions regarding journalistic practices.

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Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.

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