The PJ Tatler

FCC Commissioner: 'The Devil Is in the Details' on Newsroom Spying Study

The FCC commissioner who brought the plans of newsroom monitoring to light in a Wall Street Journal op-ed said the agency is now tweaking the news content study to try to make it more palatable, but “the devil is in the details.”


Pai, a former deputy general counsel for the FCC, was appointed as one of the Republican board members in 2012.

“The FCC is proposing to do what it is calling a Critical Information Needs, or CIN, study. They will send researchers into newsrooms across the country, television and broadcast and newspapers, to try to figure out why they cover the stories they do. They have identified eight categories of news they think news people should be covering. Some of the questions they ask were highly technical. They are asking reporters, for example, have you ever wanted to cover a story and were told you can’t do so. As I looked into the study design, I got concerned about what it implicated for our First Amendment values,” Pai told Fox News.

He noted that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler just “instructed the contractor, who will be doing the study, to remove questions from the study relating to news philosophy and editorial judgment.”

“That’s a positive step but the devil is in the details when it comes to the actual study as implemented,” Pai said. “…Government doesn’t have a place in the newsroom. One thing that’s made the country great is the fact that news outlets decide for themselves what stories to cover and how to cover them, especially in a marketplace as competitive as this one. They don’t need the government over their shoulders tell them they’re doing something wrong.”


Pai said the study hasn’t yet started. “That’s why it’s critical for us to make sure we stop the study or, if it’s going forward, we make sure it doesn’t infringe on constitutional freedom.”

To do the study, he said, the FCC “is relying on a statute that requires the FCC to report to Congress every three years on barriers entrepreneurs and small businesses face when trying to get into the communications industry.”

“Even if there were some connection, the FCC doesn’t have regulatory authority when it comes to the print media. We don’t tell newspapers what to cover, and newspapers, nonetheless, are covered under the CIN study,” he added.

One of the “great ironies” of the study, Pai added, is there is no “barrier” to information with the explosion of the Internet.

“Consumers have an unparalleled amount of choices. They can go online. They can find a broadcast network they like. They can go on cable news or newspapers. Given they have so many choices and given there are so many people competing to provide them the news they want, there’s no reason for the FCC to inject itself into the editorial judgments of all these people,” he said.


“I’m not sure what the intent behind it is. What I can tell you is a lot of folks I have heard from in the industry are telling me that they are worried about the inadvertent coercion that might happen if the FCC says, look, we are just asking questions. Well, if you are holding a broadcast license the FCC issues, you are not going to feel like it’s voluntary if you have to answer the questions in this 70-something-page study.”

Wheeler wasn’t FCC chairman when the study was designed, Pai said, but now has the power to call it off. “I’m hopeful that he and my colleagues will come to embrace the basic principle that the government has no place in the newsroom,” he said.

Join the conversation as a VIP Member