FCC commissioner Ajit Pai warned, the study would “thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country.”

(Washington, DC) – Judicial Watch announced today that on October 16, 2014, it filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeking “any and all records” relating to a controversial FCC “Critical Information Needs” (CIN) pilot study of how news media make editorial decisions on the stories they cover. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Judicial Watch v. Federal Communications Commission (No. 1:14-cv-01728)).

According to the FCC, the “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs” was designed “to provide a comprehensive analysis of access/barriers to CINs in diverse American communities … with special emphasis on vulnerable/disadvantaged populations.” In a letter to the FCC, the National Association of Broadcasters termed the FCC proposal “constitutionally questionable.”  And FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, warned that the study would “thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country.” In response to the controversy, the FCC in late February announced that it would suspend the study.

The Judicial Watch lawsuit, filed after the FCC failed to respond to a February 12 FOIA request, seeks the following:

Any and all records in the possession of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relating to the Multi-Market Critical Information study to be conducted by the FCC, including, but not limited to, studies, memoranda and communications between FCC commissioners and/or staff members related to Multi-Market Critical Information Needs study.

The FCC announced the nationwide CIN study in May 2013, claiming its purpose was “to ascertain the process by which stories are selected … perceived station bias … and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.” In a December 2013 letter to the FCC, House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) termed the CIN study an attempt “to control the political speech of journalists” and urged the agency to “put a stop to this most recent attempt to engage the FCC as the ‘news police.’” And former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell accused the agency of “sticking the government’s nose into what has traditionally been privileged and protected ground.

The questions FCC CIN agents were to ask private news media companies included:

  • “What is the news philosophy of the station?
  • “Who decides which stories are covered?”
  • “How much does community input influence news coverage decisions?”
  • “What are the demographics of the news management staff?”
  • “What are the demographics of the news production staff?”

The FCC plan also would have had government monitors “crawling” the Internet sites of newspapers, local governments, blogs, non-profits, and citizen journalists.

“Once again we see the heavy hand of the Obama administration hovering over the First Amendment’s freedom of the press,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “It’s little wonder that Reporters Without Borders’ recent survey of world press freedom ranked the United States forty-sixth, below even that of Botswana and Romania – and only one position above Haiti. The FCC now says it has killed the study but we are skeptical – especially since we now have had to sue in federal court to get information about this issue.  Unfortunately, the study is simply the latest version of the ‘Fairness Doctrine,’ a FCC regulatory scheme ended during the Reagan administration that was used to regulate political speech on radio and television.  This time, true to the Obama administration’s racialist agenda, the FCC sought to pressure media under the guise of racial diversity and community organizing language. This FCC scandal also echoes the Obama IRS abuse, which illegally targeted groups and individuals based upon their political philosophy.  The FCC, which is charged with making sure regulated media companies obey the law, refuses to obey the Freedom of Information Act and tell the American people why it wanted to interrogate newsmen and monitor the blogs of everyday citizens.”