The Washington Examiner's Byron York has offered up another theory on the true motivation behind the Federal Communications Commission's cancelled survey: this was an attempt to expand minority and female ownership of newsrooms. Conservative media outlets worried that this was the government's plan to attack the First Amendment and stamp out anti-liberal bias. Others thought it was an attempt to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which required equal air time for both sides of a story. Some thought it was just a study. Everyone seemed to be jumping to conclusions, since the study wasn't set to take place until this spring.
The FCC's study was pushed by Mignon Clyburn, "an Obama-appointed FCC commissioner and ... the daughter of powerful House Democratic Rep. James Clyburn." Last year she served as interim head of the FCC, and was very prolific — one of her initiatives was the study. Clyburn, who previously owned an African-American newspaper in South Carolina, was a big advocate of increasing minority ownership of newsrooms. According to York:
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.
But while York conceded that she probably wasn't trying to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, he did argue that she was trying to change media content by changing media ownership. What he doesn't point out is the dearth of minority-owned stations in America or the fact that the FCC's actions are directly tied to minority ownership of broadcast stations.
As the watchdog group Free Press found in December, there were just 18 black-owned commercial TV stations in 2006, about 2 percent of the overall total. In 2012 there were five, and as of last year there are zero. Free Press argued that the FCC relaxed its station ownership regulations, "crowded out existing owners of color and ensured that it would be nearly impossible for new owners to access the public airwaves." One way to increase minority ownership of networks is with low-power TV stations that are cheaper to own and serve smaller populations. In 2011, 15 percent of those stations are owned by people of color. Now, however, the FCC is planning to auction stations to cellphone companies. This incentive auction is pushing people out of the low-power market, as their creditors force them to sell to cash in on the auction. Clyburn and others have expressed concern that the auction will affect diversity.
So while the methods behind the study — sending government employees to interview journalists — was ill-advised, the issues the study sought to address and examine are very real.