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FCC Won't Ask Journalists To Explain Themselves After All

Critics told Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler his agency's proposed news media study would threaten press freedom.

hide captionCritics told Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler his agency's proposed news media study would threaten press freedom.

Susan Walsh/AP

It may not be in full retreat, but the Federal Communications Commission certainly seemed to be in a major strategic withdrawal from a plan that has caused a political firestorm: a study that would have asked journalists and media owners how they decide what is and isn't news.

Conservative lawmakers, talk-show hosts and bloggers had attacked the study as a threat to freedom-of-the-press rights in the First Amendment. That the FCC was starting small, with a pilot project in Columbia, S.C., hardly mattered.

Opponents raised the specter of Big Brother regulators posing intrusive questions in newsrooms. There was apparently plenty of outrage to spare after the Internal Revenue Service fiasco involving that agency's misbegotten review of political groups that sought tax-exempt status.

But it wasn't just conservatives who expressed doubts. You could even find raised eyebrows at a progressive publication like The Atlantic.

The FCC attempted to reassure Congress and others that it was merely trying to gather information for a report it owes Congress on how easy or hard it is for small businesses and entrepreneurs to take on established media companies.

But the "trust us" approach almost never works in Washington. So the FCC decided to punt.

"Last week, [FCC] chairman [Thomas] Wheeler informed lawmakers that the commission has no intention of regulating political or other speech of journalists or broadcasters and would be modifying the draft study," said FCC spokesperson Shannon Gilson in a statement. "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," Gilson's statement said.

What Gilson didn't say, but what is very likely, is that given the controversy there's likely to be much more vetting with the political powers-that-be of whatever new study the FCC comes up with.

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