The Federal Communications Commission has pulled the plug on a study that sought information on the how local radio and television stations cover news.
The Critical Information Needs study was to be conducted every three years for Congress. It was aimed at eliminating barriers that make entry into the media industry difficult for entrepreneurs and small-business owners.
However, the pilot test for the survey included questions regarding the editorial practices of media and was heavily criticized both inside and outside the FCC. The test was slated for this spring in Columbia, S.C.
Besides general inquiries regarding coverage of issues including the environment and requests for insight into the decision-making process behind a newscast, it also sought details on the relationship between journalists and management.
The inclusion of questions regarding the editorial process of media was seen by critics as out of bounds for a government agency.
Most outspoken was FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who said the FCC had no business poking around newsrooms under the guise of a fact-finding mission.
Several lawmakers also criticized the CIN survey. On Wednesday, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Subcommittee of Communications and Technology and a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was preparing a bill to kill it.
“The very existence of this CIN study is an affront to the 1st Amendment and should have never been proposed in the first place,” Walden said. “The study should be eradicated completely.”
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had also indicated he had problems with the survey. Wheeler inherited the study from his predecessor, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who briefly served as acting chairwoman.
“The commission has no business probing the news media’s editorial judgment and expertise,” he told lawmakers in a letter. Wheeler tried to salvage the effort by saying the questions about editorial practices would be removed.
But that wasn’t enough of a concession for lawmakers. Earlier in the week, another FCC commissioner, Michael O’Rielly, also advocated canceling the CIN project outright.
On Friday afternoon, the FCC said it would not move forward with the CIN study.
“The commission will reassess the best way to fulfill its obligation to Congress to identify barriers to entry into the communications marketplace faced by entrepreneurs and other small businesses,” a spokesman for the agency said.
Commissioner Pai cheered the news.
“In our country, the government does not tell the people what information they need,” he said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to identify and remove actual barriers to entry into the communications industry.”
Follow Joe Flint on Twitter @JBFlint.