The Federal Communications Commission now says it has killed a plan to question journalists around the country to assess whether those journalists are meeting government-defined "critical information needs." The FCC had come under heavy criticism -- almost all of it from conservatives -- over the plan since Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai outlined its details in a Feb. 10 Wall Street Journal op-ed.
In a classic late-Friday-afternoon announcement -- timing usually employed to ensure that a story will not receive much coverage -- the commission announced simply, "The FCC will not move forward with the Critical Information Needs study." The decision met with quick approval from Pai, who released a statement saying, "In our country, the government does not tell the people what information they need. Instead, news outlets and the American public decide that for themselves."
As the controversy grew, it first appeared the FCC was searching for a way to keep the study alive. On Feb. 21, the commission announced it would suspend the study while it was redesigned, although it stressed it would not in any event conduct the journalist interviews. The commission insisted that it never planned to intrude on First Amendment protections. "Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America's newsrooms is false," FCC spokesman Shannon Gilson said at the time.
Now, though, the study has been canceled altogether. Why the change? It's most likely the decisive factor was continuing opposition to (and scrutiny of) the plan on Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee announced it would "pursue legislative solutions to take the Federal Communications Commission's Critical Information Needs study off the books." Committee chairman Rep. Fred Upton and Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden made clear they were not going to allow the FCC to go forward without a lot of trouble.
It's one thing to take hits in the conservative media. It's quite another to find the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee breathing down your neck. Just days after the "legislative solutions" announcement, the FCC beat a hasty retreat.
But that doesn't mean the issue is dead. The FCC had originally framed its study as part of a responsibility to study "barriers to entry" into the communications business faced by small businesses and minorities. Critics contended that the study had nothing to do with "barriers to entry." Whatever the case, the FCC, even as it announced its decision to kill the Critical Information Needs Study, made clear it intends to go forward. "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," the FCC statement said.
What is sure now is that the FCC will go forward under sharpened oversight from House Republicans. "We welcome the news that the FCC is dropping its ill-conceived encroachment into the newsroom," said Upton and Walden in a statement released late Friday. "This is a victory for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. But this unprecedented and dangerous intrusion on America's newsrooms should never have been pursued in the first place. Although important questions remain, [the FCC's] action is a positive step."
The key phrase: "important questions remain." The FCC has put an end to the immediate controversy, but not to its problems on Capitol Hill.