FCC Commissioner Defends Controversial Media Study on Barriers to Small Businesses

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By Bryce Baschuk  

Feb. 26 --Mignon Clyburn, a commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission, defended a controversial study aimed at understanding what barriers prevent small businesses from competing in the media marketplace.

“Studying such barriers and determining whether there are appropriate policies to remove such barriers is what Congress directed us to do in Section 257 of the Communications Act,” Clyburn said Feb. 26 at a luncheon hosted by the Media Institute. “Understanding the markets we regulate is necessary, it is critical and it is urgent.”

Clyburn's comments came a week after the FCC announced that its Columbia, S.C.-based multi-market study of critical information needs (CIN) would not be undertaken until a new design study is final. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Feb. 21 that the commission would modify the proposed study because some survey questions in the study directed toward media outlet managers, news directors, and reporters “overstepped the bounds of what is required.”

The proposed study had sought to help the commission gather data in order to identify and eliminate “market entry barriers for entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications services and information services” as required by Section 257 of the Communications Act. Clyburn advanced the study in 2013 when she was acting FCC Chairwoman.

No Intention to Chill Free Speech

Commissioner Ajit Pai and several congressional Republicans previously voiced their objection to the study, which they said would run afoul of First Amendment protections and unduly burden newsrooms. Though the commission has withdrawn the questions that it said were inappropriately addressed to newsrooms, the study will move forward in a new form, an FCC spokesman said.

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said in a Feb. 26 news release that tweaking the study “is just not enough.” “If any value was ever to come from this particular exercise, that ship has sailed. It is probably time to cancel the CIN study for good,” he said.

“As a person who spent 14 years running a weekly newspaper in Charlestown, South Carolina, I would never ever, ever be part of any effort to chill speech, shape the news or influence newsgatherers,” Clyburn said. “I am about facilitating ownership and opportunities and making sound decisions as a regulator about these most critical industries based on solid research.” Clyburn was previously the publisher and general manager of The Coastal Times, which focused on issues affecting the African American community.

The commission will still be able to achieve its goals without the redacted questions, Clyburn said. Nevertheless, “it will be very difficult to make any sound regulatory decision in this ever-changing landscape in a data vacuum,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

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