What Was the FCC Newsroom “Survey” Really About?

That is the question that Byron York poses at the Examiner. His explanation:

[T]he FCC’s action may have, in fact, been something different: an attempt — still grossly unconstitutional in its method — to lay a foundation for a new government push to increase minority ownership of the nation’s media outlets.

Byron bases that conclusion on the fact that the driving force behind the FCC’s now-withdrawn newsroom initiative was Mignon Clyburn, daughter of hard-left Congressman James Clyburn, who was appointed to the FCC by Barack Obama. About Ms. Clyburn, York writes:

Mignon Clyburn…has long advocated more minority ownership in the media. But she has often reminded colleagues that to make the case for policies that would increase minority ownership, proponents need more empirical information to support their contention that more diverse ownership would be better than what exists today. For example, if a study showed that the existing media structure is not meeting the “critical information needs” of minorities and women in America, proponents could use it to buttress the case that government should enact policies to make sure more television and radio stations end up in the hands of minorities and women.

Mignon Clyburn

Mignon Clyburn

I think Byron is right about that. But I would take the point further: the structure of the survey that the FCC intended to carry out–or, rather, the FCC’s Democrats, since they apparently didn’t even tell the Republican members of the Commission about the survey until it was announced publicly–would have encompassed not just ownership, but, potentially more important, those who select news stories to cover, and those who deliver them on-air.

The fullest explanation of what the FCC newsroom initiative involved is this report by contractor Social Solutions International. SSI’s report is shot through with references to “demographics,” which would be explored in the various surveys that were to be undertaken. But “demographics” is a broad term that could include quite a few variables. What aspects of demographics was the FCC interested in? The term was explained in SSI’s report:

Because we are interested in neighborhood effects, we will then draw up a purposive sampling frame of neighborhoods that include principal demographic categories of interest: race and ethnicity, and income.

The SSI report makes clear that a principal focus of the FCC’s survey was to connect “demographics,” i.e. race and income, to television and radio stations’ meeting (or not meeting) the “critical information needs” of “underserved communities.” Here are a few excerpts from the report that illustrate the point:

Utilizing a sample of media providers (n= maximum of 280), we will conduct a qualitative analysis of local media services providing for CINs via in-depth interviewing, with particular emphasis on ownership characteristics, employment data, demographics on decision makers and barriers to entry.
Some of the information on the news media properties can be obtained by examining the respective websites. For instance, it is possible to determine the owner and, for the television stations, the identities of the on-air staff members. Using this method, we can learn the names of the top managers at the television stations and newspapers. Finding radio station news managers is not always successful using the Internet. The most reliable way to collect this information is through personal contact with news media property staff or someone familiar with the staff. However this also presents challenges. It is important to identify and talk with people who are willing to provide demographic information about their respective property’s work force.
Consequently two strategies must be employed:
1. Locating someone in the station who can provide demographic information; and
2. Making a formal request for the demographic information from Human Resources and/or corporate headquarters.
The final constructed database will contain data for all media outlets at multiple units of analysis. We anticipate that the most granular unit of analysis will be individual news stories, while higher order variables will tap into higher units of analysis. For example, for broadcast television and radio, we also will include station demographics.
One aspect of each media ecology we may choose to analyze is how certain factors explain the variance of provision for CINs. Depending on how provision is operationalized (continuously or categorically), we may opt to employ multiple regression or logistic regression to examine how certain factors (e.g. demographics of media outlet) explain/predict provision of certain CINs.
Data scoring, entry, and analysis will be conducted by our research team. The data analysis will potentially include examination of the frequencies, demographic comparisons, multi-variate modeling, and in-depth interview analysis:

Station Owners, Managers or HR
* What is the news philosophy of the station?
* Who is your target audience?
* How do you define critical information that the community needs?
* How do you ensure the community gets this critical information?
* How much does community input influence news coverage decisions?
* What are the demographics of the news management staff (HR)?
* What are the demographics of the on air staff (HR)?
* What are the demographics of the news production staff (HR)?

It seems obvious that a key purpose of the aborted FCC survey–maybe the only purpose–was to document 1) a lack of news stories relating to certain “critical information needs” of “underserved”–i.e., minority and low-income–communities, and 2) a lack of minority employees of television and radio stations among those who make decisions about what news stories to cover, who produce the news stories, and who present them on-air. The conclusion: voila! More minorities must be hired. The desired outcome of the survey would have been an FCC requirement that television and radio stations hire a quota of minority employees in these positions, or else lose their licenses to broadcast. Given that African-Americans currently vote approximately 95% Democrat, and Hispanics approximately 70% to 80% Democratic, the effect of such a mandate is obvious: fewer stories about Benghazi, Obamacare failures and government corruption, lots more sob stories about the minimum wage.

So I think Byron is on to something here, but the truth is probably even worse than he suggested. The FCC “critical information needs” initiative was, I think, an effort to institutionalize the Democratic Party in the nation’s news rooms–not just at the broadcast networks, where the Democrats are already institutionalized, but across the broad range of television and radio.

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