FCC chair Tom Wheeler has refuted accusations that a new commission study is an attempt to strong-arm television, newspaper, and internet news organizations into changing their coverage. Last week, Wheeler's fellow commissioner Ajit Pai accused the FCC of meddling with media outlets, citing an upcoming field test of its "Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs." The study's stated purpose is to identify how the overall media landscape covers "critical information" in a variety of categories and markets. But to Pai and others, the plan raised red flags. Now, Wheeler has responded, saying that the station has "no intention" of using this survey or any others to regulate reporters.

A new Fairness Doctrine is a recurring concern

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Pai cited a number of questions the FCC plans to ask various outlets. In anonymous surveys, newsroom managers will be asked about their "news philosophy," and reporters will be asked if they've had a story that contained critical information rejected by management, something Pai describes as "wading into office politics." In addition to taking issue with the survey in general, he suggested that the FCC will use its authority to shut down stations that do not participate. "Participation in the Critical Information Needs study is voluntary — in theory," he says, but "the FCC's queries may be hard for the broadcasters to ignore. They would be out of business without an FCC license, which must be renewed every eight years."

Pai and several Republican members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce believe that the survey could usher in a new version of the Fairness Doctrine, a long-defunct rule that required news outlets to devote time to presenting multiple sides of a controversial issue. The Fairness Doctrine hasn't been in place since 1987, and the language enabling it was officially purged from the books in 2011, but the possibility of the FCC becoming the "news police" — as this letter calls it — is frequently raised by conservatives. "The commission has no business probing the the news media's editorial judgment and expertise, nor does it have any business in prescribing a set diet of 'critical information,'" says a letter from House Republicans.

Study 'need not go beyond' FCC's responsibilities

Wheeler's response to the committee is that contrary to the letter's claims, the FCC actually is responsible for researching the news landscape to help identify underserved communities and barriers for new outlets. The study's goal "would be similar to those of past reports," says Wheeler, "seeking to identify whether potential market barriers exist and, if so, whether those barriers affect diversity of media voices." While Pai ominously describes categories of critical information like "environment" (described in the study as information about air and water quality and access to parks) and "economic opportunities" (described as job opportunities, small business help, and job training), these categories are overwhelmingly focused on basic information like schools, transportation, health, and local public policy initiatives. A sample community survey asks people how they would find information about things like school closures, polling places, local safety issues, and public services.

Nonetheless, Wheeler says the draft is open to revision. "Your letter and the opportunity for public review surfaced a number of issues and modification of the research design may be necessary," he writes, assuring House Republicans that in the next few weeks, adjustments will be made in order to ensure that the study won't "go beyond our responsibilities." Since Wheeler took office, there's been virtually no suggestion he will institute any Fairness Doctrine-style regulations, but the concern is clearly recurrent enough to merit response.

Update: In a statement late Friday, an FCC spokesperson says Wheeler has agreed that the questionnaire "overstepped the bounds of what is required." As mentioned before, the agency will modify the draft, but it's also taking the larger step of delaying the pilot study until a new version is agreed upon. And the final version will strip out any of the questions to journalists or newsroom managers. "To be clear, media owners and journalists will no longer be asked to participate in the Columbia, SC pilot study," says the statement. "The pilot will not be undertaken until a new study design is final. Any subsequent market studies conducted by the FCC, if determined necessary, will not seek participation from or include  questions for media owners, news directors or reporters."