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On Second Thought
Questions planned for the news media get scrapped over allegations of government intrusion.

Last week, Sen. Ron Johnson put out a press release excoriating the Federal Communications Commission for plans – now abandoned – to, as Johnson described it, “question how journalists work.

 

What was that all about?

 

It’s a very long story, but it boils down to this. The FCC, founded 80 years ago this year, has a wide range of responsibilities, all revolving around the idea that the radio airwaves aren’t the private property of broadcasters, but belong to you and me – the public. Much of its regulatory role involves technology: The FCC is what prevents someone from setting up a radio transmitter to broadcast at the same frequency as, say, AM-620 WTMJ, thereby drowning out Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner.

 

With the airwaves a public trust rather than a private monopoly, who owns the licenses is part of the agency’s purview. As Paul Farhi at the Washington Post explains, Congress has mandated the FCC to report from time to time on the diversity of media ownership – and how to encourage more of it.

 

A 2011 FCC report, The Information Needs of Communities, took a comprehensive look at the sweeping change in the media landscape, to help inform debate about whether and how broadcast regulations might need to change as a consequence of massive technological and cultural shifts. Following up, the agency commissioned a study last year delving further into the topic.

 

As Columbia Journalism Review reports, the purpose of the study – to be carried out by a private contractor – is to find out whether ordinary people are getting the information they want and need from the current media marketplace and whether improving the outcome would require changes in federal policies under the FCC’s control. The study itself is to be conducted in individual news markets, with a pilot planned for Columbia, S.C.

 

A handful of questions were to have been asked of broadcast and print journalists and managers on how stories were chosen, what were their news priorities, and how and how much news was focused on “underserved populations.” There were questions about “news philosophy” and, reportedly, one asking broadcast reporters whether their bosses or owners were putting a damper on stories the reporters thought were important. 

 

Republicans in Congress and the broadcast industry cried foul, and conservative news outlets and bloggers warned of incipient government intrusion into the news business, using terms like “news police.” In the face of the criticism, last week the FCC’s new chairman said the offending questions would be removed.

 

That wasn’t enough for Sen. Johnson, who said via press release the FCC “should instead drop the entire project” and painted it as an affront to freedom of speech and an attempt at “limiting what we say, write, see or read on political matters or public affairs.”

 

The study itself has a Wisconsin connection: As CJR reports, it piggybacked on a literature review assembled by Lewis Friedland, director of the Center for Democracy and Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Friedland told CJR dropping the now-controversial questions was probably the right call for the FCC, given how the project had been politicized. But he pushed back on the “news police” claims.

 

The newsroom interviews he’s done before (to be sure, for independent research, not the government, as CJR notes) were nothing more than “standard community-level research” of a form that hundreds of journalists he’s interviewed have been quite happy to take part in. As he told CJR:

 

It was simply to get their point of view of how they understood the information needs of their local communities. Because part of the point of the study was to actually go into a pilot community to use standard social science methods of both qualitative interviewing focus groups, but also surveys, and to find out what people perceived their information needs to be. And then to look at the total information environment—the total output in that community—and to see whether those matched or not, to see whether they were being met or not. And that was the core of the study … So, long story short, the reason that we wanted to talk to broadcasters and newspaper editors … was to see how they perceived their mission and who they perceived their audiences to be.

 

I’ll grant that whether or not this stretches the FCC’s general mandate is a subject for debate. But here’s what I found particularly fascinating.

 

While surveying the web for more background on the issue, I found no shortage of conservative organizations with an opinion (negative). But I was curious – how did media critics on the southpaw side view it – and, for that matter, how did they view the dustup that led the FCC to back down?

 

The fact is, there was very little if anything on the survey or the controversy over it at places like Free Press or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

 

What there was, however, was a lot of attention to an issue that is likely to have a lot bigger impact on you and me and anyone who watches television, especially cable TV, than a series of questions posed to reporters and editors. And it’s an issue that the conservative media critics I looked at seemed mostly silent about: the proposed Comcast/TimeWarner merger.

 

That deal will put nearly one-third of the nation’s pay-TV viewers in the pocket of a single provider. (And don’t forget, Comcast already owns NBC television.) New York magazine’s Kevin Roose says the prospective combinationwould create a mega-empire in an industry that is already dominated by a few huge companies.” 

 

I scrolled through Sen. Johnson’s press releases to see if he made any kind of statement on that deal. I also emailed the senator’s office through his website to inquire what, if any, stand he has taken on it.

 

So far, I’ve heard nothing.*

*

 

Welcome back: Milwaukee Magazine editor Kurt Chandler has commissioned Jane Hampden to re-launch Pressroom in the print edition of the magazine. I’ve known Jane professionally for many years, going back to her work as on WUWM radio’s Lake Effect program and missed her journalistic voice when she entered academia a few years back. Jane made her Pressroom debut in the February issue with an insightful meditation on the media culture of young people today. 

Meanwhile, I will continue producing this online column looking at local and national media matters. It’s great to have a multiplicity of voices on this topic, which I’ve always seen as a core part of Milwaukee Magazine’s content. So stick around. Between the two of us, we hope to keep you as informed and engaged as ever on the constantly changing landscape of the business of news and information.

 

*

Comment below, or write to pressroom@milwaukeemagazine.com.

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*Shortly after today’s column went up,  I heard back from Johnson’s office through his aide, Patrick McIlheran, who tells me: “The senator does not customarily comment on proposed mergers between private companies.”

 






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