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A Chill In The Air: The FCC Demand for “Worthy Media”

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Hmmm. An FCC Commissioner wants to reform journalism.

“Local content” regulations are regulations of broadcast content, and as such represent an obvious assault on the First Amendment freedom of broadcasters. It seems like the smash up of November has unleashed the FCC’s inner censor to renew the assault on media with which it doesn’t agree.

“We can do so much under our existing authority to help restore diversity, localism and competition to our media landscape,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps told the ABA yesterday. He wants to ensure “that all citizens have access to worthy media, to the news and information our democratic dialogue requires.”

He wants control. Heads up America. The FCC is focusing on controlling what you can listen to and when. Here’s is the link to his full speech. Read all of it. For your convenience, here are the paragraphs on the proposed program of censorship, er, “worthy media”:

Let me turn now to media policy. You knew this was coming and you invited me anyhow! As most of you know, I don’t go anywhere without talking about what has been my top priority since I came to the Commission. [# More #] At the beginning of December, I delivered a speech at Columbia University’s School of Journalism that got some attention. Fox News Channel’s Bernie Goldberg worried that I wanted “to shut down conservative talk radio” and Bill O’Reilly wondered if I was “going to begin calling shots here on The Factor.” Let me be clear: neither is true. And neither has anything to do with what I was actually talking about. Imagine that from those two! But it’s not their opinions I worry about. I have lots of opinions, too. And I like to express them. But what you and I are getting these days is too much opinion based on opinion and too little news based on fact. For all that over-hyped 500 channel universe and bevy of websites, it is more and more difficult to find real news and information in today’s media landscape. In truth, the news is suffering from a bad case of substance abuse. That’s not just because the news is hard to find; it’s because there is much less of it. And there is much less of it because there is much less real journalism going on in our country today. When you lose a quarter or a third of your newsroom reporters, something’s got to give. Well, it gave.

So, on this anniversary of the 1996 Act, we should pause to think about what has been lost. I wish I could say that the Act had been implemented in such a way as to foster a media environment with more diverse ownership, more local content, more independent production, and more competition. But statistics tell the opposite story. We have witnessed a 39% drop in the number of owners of radio stations in the last 15 years. Similar consolidation shrunk television. In 2010, there were 150 fewer owners of commercial TV stations-a 33% decrease. And, while 34% of the U.S. population consists of minorities, only about 3% of full-power commercial TV stations and 7.7% of radio stations are minority-owned. That’s bad for citizens, bad for the country, and I believe it’s bad for broadcasting, too.

Congress gave us some pretty clear media goals in 1996, telling the FCC to promote “diversity of media voices, vigorous economic competition, technological advancement, and promotion of the public interest, convenience and necessity.” We have certainly seen some incredible technological advancement, but we have thus far failed to deliver on the diversity, competition, or public interest part of our charge. Just to be clear: this is not about right wing talk radio or left wing cable TV hosts. This is about making sure there is media about, and originating from, the local communities a station serves. Many broadcasters are still working hard and doing their job-don’t get me wrong-but the frenzy of the marketplace and the lack of responsible public interest oversight has made life tougher for them and much less rich for consumers.

To that end, in my December speech, I called for the Commission to restore credibility to our broadcasting license renewal system by adopting a “Public Value Test,” rather than the current rubber stamp of the status quo. Some say it’s a digital age now and there is no need to focus on broadcast and traditional media. Data points to the contrary. A recent Pew study found that 78% of respondents identified television as the source of their news, the highest percentage for any platform. Yes, it’s true that the barrier to self-publish has never been lower, and that there are millions of websites to choose from, and innovation and collaboration are providing some impressive results. But newspaper and broadcast newsrooms still provide the overwhelming bulk of the news citizens receive-whether they receive it in the paper, over the air, or online. Scholars of the trade tell us that 85% or 90%, perhaps even more, of the news people get online originates from these traditional sources. It’s just that it’s a much slimmer, pared back version of its former robust self. An in-depth report from the Annenberg School released last year documented that in the typical 30 minute local news broadcast, less than 30 seconds are given over to cover hard local government stories. If it bleeds it leads-but it’s democracy’s life-blood that is hemorrhaging.

Without accountability journalism, American citizens are left trying to glean information from attack ads and overly-opinionated talking heads. In many parts of the nation there may literally be nowhere else to turn. Twenty-seven states have no full-time reporter accredited to Capitol Hill. Statehouse coverage has been slashed by a third in the past six years. How’s that for our ability to hold the powerful accountable?

We can do so much under our existing authority to help restore diversity, localism and competition to our media landscape. In those areas where we can’t, Congress may ultimately want to examine rules governing the structure of media ownership and perhaps other parts of our enabling statute. But the Commission can act now. It should have acted on media before now. I am disappointed that it has not. But in the spirit of mentoring for which the FCBA is so justly famed, I want you to know that I consider it the duty of any former Chairman to help mentor his successor. So since handing over the reins of my Acting Chairmanship, I have been doing my part to “Pay It Forward” on my media issues. I’ll get back to you on how things go.

I also hope that, as part of the nation’s discussion about the future of the media, we can all engage in a calm, serious and non-knee-jerk discussion about increasing support for public broadcasting-the jewel of American media. The sad reality is that, in this country, we spend, per capita, per annum, $1.35 supporting public media. In other democracies, citizens happily pay up to hundreds of dollars more than that. Public media enjoys high levels of public trust in our country, investing in its future is investing in our future, and talk of zeroing out this funding leaves me totally incredulous.

Ensuring that all citizens have access to worthy media, to the news and information our democratic dialogue requires, is not a new challenge for our country. Washington, Jefferson and Madison understood that their fledgling country’s future depended upon an informed citizenry, and they found ways-notably a postal subsidy for the national distribution of newspapers-to ensure the widest possible dissemination of news and information to fuel the nation’s conversation with itself. That’s what the grant of broadcast licenses much later was all about, too. So our forebears were talking information infrastructure in the 1780s just as much as we are talking information infrastructure in 2011. Times and technologies change, but our democratic challenge remains the same. It’s to keep our civic lifeblood flowing.

On a related note, I have been calling-both internally and now publicly-for the FCC to launch a Notice of Inquiry to examine disclosure in political advertising. In the last election cycle close to $3 billion was funneled into political advertising. We the people have a right to know who is bank-rolling these ads beyond some wholly unidentifiable group set up to mask the special interest it really represents. If “Citizens for Spacious Skies and Amber Waves of Grain” is really under-written by a chemical company that doesn’t want to clean up a toxic dump, I think viewers and voters would probably want to know that. Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of this undemocratic sin of omission. Anonymous ads sidetrack our civic discourse. Better to put a face on them and let the people see.

As we tackle issues of today’s media, we have to remember there is much more to it than just the deployment and adoption of broadband technology. One measure of success will be the extent to which our citizens have the digital literacy needed to use these liberating new tools of the Digital Age. We all need to understand-especially our kids-how these tools can help-or harm-us. I believe a worthy down-payment toward building this into our educational system is a K-12 online digital-media literacy curriculum, which local schools would be free to use or not. Many private and public entities have developed parts of such a curriculum. Now it’s time for a private-public partnership to get it up-and-running.

Amidst all I have talked about, I remain an optimist. I believe the year ahead, with all the challenges it portends on these and so many other issues, can be a good one for America. We have quite an occasion to rise to in this great country of ours, but really understanding the starkness of the challenge can bring us together to do what needs doing. It’s happened before. Many times. And those are the occasions when the history of our country always shines brightest, aren’t they? In that spirit, I thank you for giving me the chance to share some thoughts with you and, once again, to enjoy the good fellowship of this fine organization. I appreciate both your warm hospitality and your attention.


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