Thinking Across the Issues, Part Two

A Report Out from the Free Press Summit: Changing Media (www.freepress.net/summit)

The mid-day panel at the Free Press Summit: Changing Media, raised vital questions about the future of American media: Will our new media system be a resource for all Americans, an engine for economic growth, and a platform for new forms of art, entertainment, education and information? Or will we let the digital divide grow, expanding the information gap and cutting more people off from the benefits of the Web?

Moderated by Ray Suarez, of PBS’ The NewsHour, the panel included two former FCC chairmen, Reed Hundt and Michael Powell, as well as Jessica Rosenworcel from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, venture capitalist Ram Shriram and Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott.

Together, the panel took a hard look at the role of government in shaping the media in America. Since our nation’s founding, government – recognizing the vital role of a robust media system – has developed policies that have had an impact on everything we see, read and hear. If we are at a turning point for the media in America – what role will the government play?

The panel began with the former commissioners reflecting back on their time at the agency. “I was not a fan of the 1996 Telecommunications Act,” said Michael Powell, and talked briefly about how it contributed to the inadequate Internet system we face now.

Reed Hundt talked about how some of his strongest beliefs have had to change with the radical shifts in technology over recent years. He argued that we need four kinds of networks. “We need a health net, an electricity net, a democracy net, and an education net,” Hundt said. He argued that these are things that the market may not support, but that we must demand.

Turning toward the future of journalism, Ben Scott argued that as journalism struggles, we see the best and the worst of our news ecosystem. “New vibrant online and community news efforts are inspiring, and have pointed out the flaws and weaknesses in our old model of news, but they are not a replacement yet.”

At the founding of our nation, the government created massive postal subsidies for newspapers because they saw the news as vital. Today, the Internet is the new postal service, Scott argued, and we need to be sure it can deliver and support all kinds of journalism to all kinds of people.

“We are at a revolutionary moment in news production and distribution,” said Jessica Rosenworcel. If we are assuming that the future of news is digital, the government has to ask itself what its responsibility is to connect all people to the Internet, to ensure equal and equitable access to information, Rosenworcel said.

Ram Shriram of Sherpalo Ventures, one of the original investors in Google, then called for taking the next step, to go beyond wiring America toward a vision of a wireless America. “All the innovation we have seen so far in technology and information access has depended on an open Internet,” he said. “But as the Internet moves from the wired world into a wireless world, we need those same protections.”

This shift to a wireless America, Shriram argued, could be the biggest thing since the personal computer in terms of job creation and economic transformation.

Moderator Ray Suarez then asked the panel, “What’s stopping us from getting the Internet system we all want? If we all agree the Internet is not serving us the way we need, where is the kink in the hose?”

Former FCC Chair Michael Powell said he believed that the United States is not using its spectrum efficiently: Better spectrum policy could pave the way to better Internet. The responsibility for our “national broadband policy should reside in the office of the president,” not the FCC, Powell argued. “I think the Bush administration did fail,” admitted Powell, because they never committed to national broadband policy.

Ben Scott argued that the problem was one of vision. We still think of broadband as a business, Scott said, not as a core part of American infrastructure – one that is central to the good of our nation.

Jessica Rosenworcel suggested that we are getting there. We are taking the right steps, Rosenworcel said, and everyone in government right now, the Congress, the president, the FCC, is aware of the problem and trying to move it forward.

Ram Shriram said he thinks the issue of our time is finding a way to provide more people with affordable broadband access. He then went on to suggest that we need to evaluate who is holding onto valuable spectrum, and that if they are not putting it to use, we should consider freeing it up to lower the cost of access to more people. Government has a role to play to ensure that this vital natural resource is serving the public, Shriram said.

Ray Suarez brought the panel to a close with a discussion of media consolidation. He asked if we still need to worry about consolidation with the rise of the Internet and the struggles so many media companies are having.

Ben Scott responded that, in fact, the challenges we are seeing in old media companies now prove that consolidation was bad for media, bad for communities and bad for business. If anything, Scott argued, we need to learn the lessons of consolidation and safequard against control over the Internet consolidating as control over the broadcast arena consolidated.

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