I am not the country’s only concerned citizen. During my 10 years at the FCC, I took part in scores of town hall meetings and community forums all across America to tell people what I saw happening and to learn more about their personal experiences…In some places these meetings would attract attention; in others they would go unnoticed.
Anomalous press coverage disparities
If a city or town’s media was under consolidated control—with a large, far-away company owning the major broadcast and newspaper outlets…the coverage would be somewhere between slim and none…Most of these town hall meetings went on for hours…with hundreds of citizens…there would be an open microphone, so everyone could speak; a U.S. senator or congressperson would often be on the program, sometimes even hosting it.
Following the hearings, I would rush…to flip on the TV looking for coverage. Occasionally there would be a mention; more often it was silence in Big Media Land. But if I was visiting a town where independent media still existed and locally employed journalists were on the beat, there would be advance notice that a meeting was going to happen; there was often live TV coverage; and the event would be reported in detail…on the front page of the local paper.
I am not a conspiracy theorist by nature. While still a Commissioner, I went one day to visit the editorial page editor of a major newspaper. I had noticed an editorial chastising the excesses of big oil companies. I told the editor I was there to urge the paper to run a similar critique about the excesses of big media. The response I got was a negative shake of the head…the editor had complete freedom to cover any issue—except one. That issue was media ownership. I nearly fell through the floor at this stark admission.
Legislators will find the doors to corrective national legislation already barred by many states—or, more accurately, barred by ALEC. But when private-sector business plans diminish the infrastructure upon which we rely for our news and information, it is a story that needs to be told. When infotainment supplants hard news, shouted opinion displaces fact, and whole swathes of this land of diversity go uncovered, it is a story that needs to be told. When government policy aids and abets the transformation, it is a story that needs to be told.
There is much more the FCC should be doing to revitalize America’s media. The FCC’s job, by statute, is to protect “the public interest.” It is not some recent regulatory add-on. The term “public interest” appears over 100 times in the Telecommunications Act, and its origins trace back farther. The spectrum is a public resource, belonging to all the people. No business, no individual, actually owns even one hertz of spectrum. Broadcasters are granted licenses to use the people’s airwaves in return for serving the common good. In terms of media, the public interest has long been defined as enhancing local community broadcasting; encouraging diversity of viewpoint and content; and stimulating competition within media markets. Localism, diversity and competition are the triad of the public interest.
Role of the FCC
The FCC could usher in a new “Era of the Public Interest” by learning to say “No!” to merger proposals that will wreak further havoc on journalism. This is the essential first step, because continuing down the present road of approving almost every transaction that comes before the Commission means inflicting unacceptable harm on a system that can ill afford additional injury.
Several years ago, I began talking about disturbing online trends and warning that the Internet was in clear-and-present danger. The reaction from talking heads and government nay-sayers was that I only wanted to “regulate” the Internet…A 100% commercially driven Internet may not only fail to solve all problems; it may actually exacerbate them. We have waited too long to talk about this.
The issue of government surveillance
Widespread journalist advocacy on behalf of protecting news sources was front-page news during the dramatic revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance activities. Journalists are obviously part of that story and some have advocated for stronger legislative safeguards to protect themselves and their profession when they disclose controversial national security information.
Perhaps talking about issues going beyond national security source protection is a discussion worth having.
The larger issue of citizen privacy
National security source protection is one component of a wider range of privacy challenges growing out of an environment where advertisers, content producers and politicians want to know everything about us. The national security complex may or may not be scaling back its surveillance in the wake of recent revelations, but as Somini Sengupta wrote recently in the New York Times,
…the Internet industry has only sharpened its efforts to track users online, which it considers essential to profitability.
Examples include Google’s announced intention to employ personal information about users in commercial advertisements, and a 2013 Pew Survey,“Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online” found Americans more concerned about shielding themselves from advertising than from government agencies. This widening net of commercial surveillance is every bit as threatening to citizens as NSA surveillance. It is difficult for me to detect a bright line between these two privacy issues, yet one seems to elicit more journalist advocacy than the other.
One of the early acts of the Founding Fathers—the same generation that wrote the First Amendment—was legislation to build roads and provide large subsidies for the widest possible dissemination of newspapers throughout the land, permitting citizens to make informed decisions…Material support for the news and information infrastructure came with sterling Constitutional foundations. Closer to our own day, government stepped in to ensure that the public airwaves (radio and then TV) served the public interest.
Critical decisions that will determine the development of our news and information ecosystem wait upon us. There is an old axiom that a former employer of mine, U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings, often cited: “Decisions without you are decisions against you.”
Our present media system is the result of conscious political choices—we are in the current moment of a very long story…It is an issue of public moment because journalism is itself a public good. James Madison said it best:
A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Source: Michael Kopps, FCC commissioner 2001 -2013 via Harvard Shorenstein Center
Reproduced here under Creative Commons License Attribution 3.0. Since it wasn’t ND “no derivative works”, I took the liberty of excerpting selected paragraphs for brevity and chopping into three installments for my readers’ convenience.