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 […]

Last week, Sen. Ron Johnson put out
a press
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
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


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 “
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.”

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The study itself has a Wisconsin connection: As CJR reports, it piggybacked on a literature review assembled by Lewis
, 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


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
would 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
editor Kurt
has commissioned Jane
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. 

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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.



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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.”