North Dakota's lone congressman said Thursday he remains concerned about political bias in the media, but he has decided to take a different approach.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., earlier said he intended to call a hearing for major broadcast networks but now says he's preparing a questionnaire instead to probe issues including the way they approach their coverage and the political views of their news staff.
"It's not a witch hunt," Cramer said, reiterating his argument that broadcast networks' reliance on government bandwidth means networks should be held to high objective standards.
"It's not a beat-up-on-the-networks attempt as much as it is an attempt to lay out that they don't operate the way other private-sector (outlets) like cable or newspapers operate."
The questionnaires, Cramer said, could be distributed as soon as March. The decision is a departure from the Nov. 4 letter Cramer sent to leadership of ABC, CBS, NBC Universal and FOX Television Stations Group.
That letter cited Americans' suspicion of bias and falling confidence in the mass media as well as a Harvard study that found a falling rate of positive news coverage of President-elect Donald Trump as he emerged victorious from the Republican primaries.
At the time, Cramer cited concerns over the coverage of FBI Director James Comey's October decision to announce his agency's interest in a raft of emails related to an investigation of Hillary Clinton's email practices. Cramer complained coverage appeared to be more focused on Comey's decision to announce the review of the emails than what the existence of the emails might imply.
He added his decision to pursue a questionnaire instead of a hearing hinged on two key developments. First, he believes media tone regarding Trump has softened since the election - something he said his "shot across the bow" may have helped bring about. Second, he said an incoming Republican administration will mean more right-leaning leadership at the Federal Communications Commission - which will give him and his questionnaire additional political clout.
Cramer's interest in media bias has drawn opposing opinions. Bo Wood, an associate professor in UND's political science and public administration department, said Cramer's November announcement appeared at the time to be a means to an end, though he said he wasn't sure what that end was.
"He could have been absolutely, genuinely concerned about the tone of the media ... a lot of people think the media is biased," he said. "But any statement you make, anything you do to call for hearings on any topic, if you do it a week before an election, it's strategic."
Cramer, ultimately, won re-election against Democratic challenger Chase Iron Eyes with 69 percent of the vote. Trump won the state with nearly 63 percent. In weeks since, Cramer's name was floated as a potential pick for energy secretary-a possibility he discussed at Trump Tower with the president-elect-though he was passed over for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Cramer stressed he didn't send the letter for any personal benefit-not to help his own electoral chances or to curry favor with Trump-though he did say he hoped the letter might give media pause in the days preceding the election.
"(I sent) this letter so that these guys are on notice that they're not doing this within a vacuum," Cramer said.
Wood added he's surprised Cramer is continuing to pursue the matter, saying he doesn't see it as a winning issue with constituents nor a terribly important issue in the state.
"How to get the economy started again in North Dakota would be a great (project)," Wood said.
Cramer says he still thinks there's an important divide between coastal media and Americans in the Upper Midwest.
"I would still like to follow up," Cramer said. "I just think it's an important discussion to have in the public arena."