It’s common for members of the Federal Communications Commission to use their positions as bully pulpits for favored causes. For example, Frieda Hennock (the agency’s first female Commissioner) pressed for an expansion of noncommercial broadcasting in the United States. Former Chairman Mark Fowler spoke loudly and often from the bully pulpit, decrying the regulation of media more broadly and precipitating the wildly neoliberal paradigm that has captured contemporary regulation.
More recently, Chairman William Kennard spoke out against media consolidation by advocating for the creation of the LPFM radio service, while Commissioner Mignon Clyburn spearheaded a drive to drastically reduce the rates for making calls from prisons, among many other initiatives during her stint as interim Chair.
But sometimes the bully pulpit provides a way to dissent from agency practices, the idea being that public scrutiny may pressure some change from within. Former Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein were famous for touring the country and holding public hearings to learn what actual Americans thought about the state of their media environment.
This is the new-found role of Ajit Pai. One of the two sitting Republican Commissioners, and nearing the halfway-point of his term, Pai has not shied from the bully pulpit. His love of AM broadcasting drove him to jumpstart an FCC proceeding to examine mechanisms for revitalizing the AM band. That’s a great example of putting the bully pulpit to proactive use.
But earlier this month, Pai took to the pulpit to smear an FCC project looking into the process and practice of journalism. [He follows the lead of 16 House Republicans who have already expressed their disdain for this research.]
In a nutshell, the proposed study of Critical Information Needs would have deeply explored the news ecosystems of several U.S. media markets to better understand how the mix of stories that make up our public discourse actually become "the news." As a work of journalism research, the proposal is unprecedented: there’s never been a truly systematic analysis of entire media markets with such ambitious depth and breadth, and the data collected would have had implications far beyond the FCC itself, as it addresses fundamental questions about the operation of the "public sphere" in modern America.
A prior attempt at this, commissioned in the early-00’s by Chairman Michael Powell to justify the evisceration of the FCC’s media ownership rules, was so badly conceived and executed that it failed the legitimate-research test, and ended up being instrumental in convincing the courts to block Powell’s deregulatory zeal. So obviously, this is a touchy subject, and with Pai it hit a raw nerve.
He set up his critique by cherry-picking quotes from the 78-page proposal so that it reads like the FCC is preparing to "pressur[e] media organizations into covering certain stories." Pai then invoked one of the right-wing’s favorite bugaboos: the Fairness Doctrine. Effectively repealed in 1987, he suggested the Critical Information Needs study "is a first step down the same dangerous path."
Finally, Pai questioned the FCC’s authority to study journalism more broadly: "How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the [study] include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?"
The simplistic and alarmist rhetoric has been red meat for the right-wing media, generating immense pressure on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to modify or cancel the Critical Information Needs study proposal. Initially, Wheeler stood by the proposal’s legitimacy and necessity, but after Pai went on Fox News to ratchet up the pressure, the FCC signaled it would wholly revise it.
I honestly thought Pai might be above such demagoguery and intimidation. But since his claims are out there:
Research hurts nobody. Historically, regulatory agencies have conducted research to better understand the practical effects of regulation. Many times, this research is broadly informative over a range of potential policy arenas, and oftentimes it does not lead to actionable policy. Thus, Pai’s claim that the FCC is heading down some slippery slope toward "newsroom policing" is laughable. Since the study never passed beyond the proposal-stage, it’s impossible to predict what its policy-implications might have been. And since it was killed in the womb, as it were, then it’s not a stretch to call it an abortion.
If Pai is implying that the passage of some political litmus test is required before the FCC can engage in research, that calls into question the fundamental integrity of the agency’s business.
Not all research is based in economics. This is the Achilles’ heel of the contemporary regulatory paradigm. Infatuated with marketplace theory to the point of religious fervor, and buttressed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996’s mandate that regulation should be primarily weighed in the vein of its economic effects, Pai suggested that the FCC was somehow treading out of bounds with its Critical Information Needs study.
Besides the fact that this is an overly-simplistic reading of the Telecom Act, the imposition of such ideological blinders from above has decimated the agency’s ability to do independent and comprehensive policy analysis. The FCC’s increasing reliance on industry-provided research has created what former Commissioner Adelstein once called "faith-based regulation"—a situation in which media policy gets made in an environment almost wholly devoid of meaningful facts. Radio’s digital transition is a poster-child for faith-based regulation’s worst-case scenario.
Pai’s blinders also allow him to ignore the fact that journalism is not a commodity like widgets that can be perfectly calculated and modeled. I doubt that he would disagree that what we often consider the "best" journalism is that which has civic effects that extend far beyond the economic realm. Disciples of neoliberalism hate market intangibles, but that doesn’t make them go away.
It’s hard to be a marketplace evangelist, then pick and choose your markets. The cheapest shot of Pai’s piece has to be the claim that, since the Critical Information Needs proposal would have involved research into newspapers, it fell way outside the FCC’s permissible scope of inquiry. Not only does this deny the above points, it cleverly denies the phenomenon of media convergence that, in other arenas, Pai praises with great zeal.
The refrain goes something like this: if all media are slowly evolving to occupy a single platform, then what’s the point of having regulations for different types of media? You can clearly see the deregulatory appeal. But it’s intellectually dishonest to worship convergence in the big picture and deny it in the gritty details. That’s tantamount to claiming that gravity exists except in those situations that do not fully suit your political worldview.
This entire stew is an excellent example of the moral bankruptcy of modern media policymaking—heaven forbid we gain a better understanding of how information flows affect the practice of democracy.