Under Pressure, FCC Stops Asking Questions About Media Diversity

Or, how a little study about media access for people of color and women caused a big fuss

By Carla Murphy Mar 14, 2014

Late last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced the end of its "Critical Information Needs" (CIN) pilot study. The study, which was supposed to have been field-tested in "ethnically diverse" Columbia, S.C., was going to explore whether local news outlets were meeting the information needs of their communities–in particular, people of color and women. The CIN instead met a "quiet" end as FCC watchers described it, following a raucous blitz.

First, there was a trouncing in The Wall Street Journal by Obama appointee and FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai who had inherited the study ("The government has no place pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories."); weeks of conservative talk radio and online fury ("The Obama Administration…is poised to place government monitors in newsrooms across the country, wrote Red State, pointing to a petition with 90,000 signatures); and concern from mainstream columnists. All together, what began as push-back last December from 16 Republican congressmen ratcheted up, according to a lead researcher on the project, Lewis Friedland, to hate mail and death threats.

So what’s the big deal? 

One way the study was going to gather information was to conduct a "census" of local TV, radio and newspaper newsrooms, to learn, among other things, if the staff was diverse and how newsrooms decide which stories to cover. But the prospect of a government-funded study in the newsroom–even one outsourced to academics–is the point around which both substantive criticism and red-meat politics coalesced.

Notably, left unanswered after the dust-up was the study’s driving question: Are local newsrooms meeting the information needs of people of color and women? And, neither was there much serious grappling among media critics as to why the question might be relevant.

"I feel like all the outrage was theater," says Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the advocacy group, Free Press. "There’s a long tradition of Fairness Doctrine panics in this country, where the right wing has found that to be red meat for their base," Aaron says, referencing the now-revoked 1949 law mandating broadcasters to air controversial matters of public interest and contrasting views. (Its end is credited with the late 1980s explosion of conservative talk radio.) "The broadcast lobby knows they can use the Fairness Doctrine to obscure debate around sensible policies, like, public airwaves being more representative of all the people who live in this country. They don’t want to have that conversation."

Osama Siblani knows the impact of underrepresentation in the newsroom. He founded The Arab American News in 1984, in reaction to what he considered biased media coverage of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon two years earlier. On an early March morning, in the middle of a snowstorm and short five reporters, the publisher of the country’s largest and oldest Arab-American weekly had never heard of the CIN study much less that it had been canned. But he also didn’t need it to tell him what he already knew.

"There are no Arab-Americans in the newsrooms of the two leading newspapers in the state," he says, noting that metro Detroit has the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States. "And in local television, with the exception of one, it’s the same. It is unbelievable." (Calls to the Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News were unanswered by press time.)

Over the years, and particularly since 9/11, Siblani has become a public voice on Arab-American issues and has observed a growing dialogue between his community and local mainstream press. For them and national outlets, he’s also become a behind-the-scenes fact-checker of stereotypes and inaccuracies and, a go-to source for stories.

"Most of time they really don’t know our issues or what’s going on," Siblani says. "We’re open to providing answers but the problem is, that’s not our job. Get people from the community you serve into the newsroom. And if you have questions, then you have someone there to answer."

Journalists and editors of color across the country can and often do tote to conferences and bars similar testimony about newsrooms in their markets. The FCC had sought to do a scientific and rigorous data collection.

In 2012 the FCC commissioned Friedland, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to do a literature review. He and co-authors culled 500 sources from more than 1,000 across the disciplines and within a 20-year span.

Their major finds: the FCC’s concept of using media ownership as a key measure of whether "participation" and "diversity" are actually happening in media is outdated in the Internet era. Second, there is "a severe shortage of research," directly addressing how critical (job opportunities) and emergency (what to do and where to go during a hurricane) information needs are being met for "minority communities, non-English speakers, the disabled and those of lower income." 

Friedland, on the phone from Jerusalem where he is a visiting professor at Hebrew University, relates an example of interest to low-income parents.

"In Washington, D.C., one of the highest performing charter schools was systematically under-enrolled for several years. Why would that be? It doesn’t stand to reason that you have a top level charter but can’t fill the seats," Friedland says. Unless, he intimates, parents just don’t know the seats are even open.

"It suggests there might be a gap in local education coverage but, we don’t know that! [The story is] an anecdote,"–like Siblani’s about nonexistent Arab-Americans in Michigan’s newsrooms.

"And that’s exactly the point: we don’t know," Friedland says.

Quantitative and qualitative data collection is what government agencies are supposed to do, says attorney Cheryl Leanza, media policy advisor for the United Church of Christ*.

"It’s appropriate for the federal government to seek to gather neutral in-depth data," Leanza says. "The FCC has to answer in court and they have to show that policy is based on real robust actionable data."

But Mike Cavender, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA), considered the now-defunct CIN study a prime example of government overreach.

"I don’t understand how talking to newsroom managers about their staff relates to the FCC’s mandate around underserved communities and minority broadcast ownership," Cavender says. Further, he says, "What is defined as an ‘underserved community’ would be my first question. In broad-based terms, making sure that all communities within a given market are being served is a worthy topic and the RTDNA doesn’t have a problem with that in theory. But again, we have a problem with incursion into the news process. Those judgments are better made by news managers, not government bureaucrats."

Asked whether the RTDNA or members seek to answer questions similar to those posed by the killed CIN study, Cavender says they conduct a count of male and female newsroom staff. More than likely though, Cavender says, stations who do conduct more extensive research to assess whether they’re meeting all community member’s needs would consider the information proprietary. "No station will share what they find out about themselves publicly because if folks across the street get ahold of that, it’s not a good thing."

If local TV stations and newspapers do collect information that assesses how well or poorly they are meeting a community’s news needs, is that proprietary? Or, is it in the public’s interest to know? — That is the major war in which a coalition of Republican congressmen, an FCC commissioner, conservative talk radio and members of the mainstream press, killed a small study with, perhaps, big implications. 

Community news publisher Siblani agrees with the study’s end. "Government has no place near a newsroom in a free market system. If you give the government an inch they will take a mile," he says. After describing the humiliating searches still taking place at airports across the nation, Siblani adds, "Just look at how they’ve responded to our national security."


* This post has been updated from the original.