FCC backs away from First Amendment-trashing survey

As public outrage has built over an FCC plan to put monitors (or as Greta Van Susteren calls them, "spies") into newsrooms and ask questions about philosophy, news judgments, and fulfillment of what the government thinks are "critical information needs," the FCC has backed away. In an official statement from FCC Spokesperson Shannon Gilson full of mealy-mouthed self-justification:

"By law, the FCC must report to Congress every three years on the barriers that may prevent entrepreneurs and small business from competing in the media marketplace, and pursue policies toeliminate those barriers. To fulfill that obligation in a meaningful way, the FCC's Office of Communications Business Opportunities consulted with academic researchers in 2012 and selected a contractor to design a study which would inform the FCC's report to Congress. Last summer, the proposed study was put out for public comment and one pilot to test the study design in a single marketplace - Columbia, S.C. - was planned.

"However, in the course of FCC review and public comment, concerns were raised that some of the questions may not have been appropriate. Chairman Wheeler agreed that survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters overstepped the bounds of what is required. Last week, Chairman Wheeler informed lawmakers that that Commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study.

Yesterday, the Chairman directed that those questions be removed entirely. "To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, S.C. pilot study. The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final. Any subsequent market studies conducted by the FCC, if determined necessary, will not seek participation from or include questions for media owners, news directors or reporters.

"Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America's newsrooms is false. The FCC looks forward to fulfilling its obligation to Congress to report on barriers to entry into the communications marketplace, and is currently revising its proposed study to achieve that goal."

It now falls to Congress to hold hearings and determine exactly who came up with the idea of trampling on the First Amendment through obviously intimidating questions, and who approved the questions. This is not a trivial point, especially not in the wake of the IRS scandal, which also featured highly inappropriate and intrusive questions.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, the hero of the story who blew the whistle on the Constitution-shredding venture with a Wall Street Journal op-ed, issued this statement:

I welcome today's announcement that the FCC has suspended its "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," or CIN study. This study would have thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country, somewhere it just doesn't belong. The Commission has now recognized that no study by the federal government, now or in the future, should involve asking questions to media owners, news directors, or reporters about their practices. This is an important victory for the First Amendment. And it would not have been possible without the American people making their voices heard. I will remain vigilant that any future initiatives not infringe on our constitutional freedoms.

America has a serious problem with government bureuacracies that see themselves as superior to, not servants of, the people. It is time to teach them otherwise.