Responding to a backlash, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday said it would drop a planned survey of the news media that sought information on how stories are chosen.
And, going one step further, the agency sought to quash a notion that it wanted to send officials into newsrooms to control how editors and reporters do their jobs.
"Any suggestion that the FCC intends to regulate the speech of news media or plans to put monitors in America's newsrooms is false," the FCC said in a statement it released in response to questions from The Post and Courier.
Because of the controversy, the FCC said its questions to newspapers, radio and TV newsrooms about "critical information" subjects will be cut from a larger study of the media that the agency does every three years as part of a report to Congress.
Tara Servatius, host of the "Tara on TMA" morning show, said the issue lit up the WTMA-AM switchboard Friday.
"It's been on talk radio all week," she said.
The Columbia news market was selected as a pilot project to test the study design.
"To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, S.C., pilot study. The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final," the FCC said.
The media survey portion of the study was roundly criticized by the press before the FCC announced that it was putting the effort on hold.
"That sounds intimidating and undemocratic," said Kelly McBride, senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think-tank. "We have a constitutional prohibition that prevents our federal government from meddling with the press," said McBride, who is considered an expert on ethics and reporting.
Jay Bender, lawyer for the S.C. Press Association, said the federal government has no business getting "engaged in second-guessing editors, publishers and news directors."
Charles Bierbauer, dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, said the blow-back has exposed issues with the survey and triggered a debate.
The issue: "It's a kerfuffle that's going away, or this is just a massive endeavor to get inside newsrooms," he said.
Bierbauer said no one from the FCC has contacted him. He knew of no broadcast media outlets that had been contacted.
"I think it's a terrible idea," said Bierbauer, a former senior White House correspondent for CNN. "It's not the FCC's job to determine what goes on the air."
He suggested that if the FCC wanted to assess what's being aired, "all they have to do is watch."
Bierbauer went on to describe newsrooms as perpetually moving operations, and that having inspectors would be "intrusive" in the process.
Decisions about what to cover hinge on a number of colliding factors, he said, ranging from available reporters to breaking news and where, how and the best way to deliver the product in a finite amount of time.
Sometimes "you may have 10 stories on the menu and only four reporters," he said.
The bias in newsrooms, if there is one, he said was "a selection bias" based on deciding "what needs to be covered for our audience's benefit."
Some critics perceive the situation as a troublesome conflict of interest because the FCC licenses broadcast stations whose news gathering it planned to review.
The FCC said it was not trying to control newsrooms, but it acknowledged that the survey questions directed toward media outlet managers, news directors and reporters "overstepped the bounds of what is required."
By law, the FCC must report to Congress every three years on barriers that may prevent entrepreneurs and small businesses from competing in the media market place, and pursue policies to eliminate those barriers.
The agency consulted with academic researchers in 2012 and selected a contractor to design its study, said spokesperson Shannon Gilson.
According to FCC documents, station owners and managers would be asked questions about news philosophy, target audience and how they define critical information that the community needs.
News directors and editors would be asked similar questions about critical information and how it is conveyed to the public. Reporters and anchors would be surveyed about who decides which stories get covered and whether their "critical information" stories were rejected by management.
The FCC said the study was designed to assess the coverage of eight "critical information" subjects, including public health, politics, transportation, the environment and economic opportunity.
The study, titled "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs," provides research that can be used to identify and understand the critical information needs of the public with a special emphasis on vulnerable/disadvantaged populations, the FCC website says.
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