Media Policy is What We Make of It

My remarks at the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications:

Should government save journalism? No – it shouldn’t and it can’t. Does government have a vital role to play in the future of our media? Yes, absolutely.

But policy is what we make of it, so it is up to us to get involved.

Many people don’t realize that the Facebook page that helped spark the January 25th protest in Egypt, was not initially set up to organize a protest. The page was actually a commentary on free speech – it was posted to honor 28-year-old Khaled Said who was pulled out of an Internet cafe and beaten to death by Egyptian police because he was suspected of posting videos of police corruption on YouTube. I start here because I think sometimes we forget that media is a life and death issue.

We don’t need to look to Egypt to be reminded of that. The first time I heard someone say “media is a life or death issue” was four years ago. I was organizing on the west side of Chicago with the NAACP in advance of a Federal Communications Commission public hearing on media ownership. A young man was telling me about the images of his community he saw every day on the nightly news, and the dissonance between those images and his daily life. The felt like the portrayals of his neighborhood were endangering him, and marginalizing his community.

A few weeks later almost 1,000 people showed up at that hearing to tell the FCC they didn’t want to see any more media consolidation. When the agency announced a hearing in Seattle seven days later, another 1,000 people turned up there.

Right now the FCC is gearing up for its next review of media ownership rules. But we already know that media consolidation has hurt journalism in America. The incredible debt accrued during many media companies buying sprees has weighed heavily on the balance sheets during tough economic times, and has made many companies choose between paying debt and paying journalists, leading to slashing jobs and closing papers (even profitable ones).

Our research on media ownership by women and people of color has shown that consolidation pushes these voices off the dial. For example, women comprise 51% of the entire U.S. population, but own only about 6% of all full power commercial television stations. Similarly, people of color represent a third of U.S., but own just 3% of all full-power commercial television stations. The radio numbers are almost as bad.

Although diversity is one of the three pillars of the FCC’s mandate it has a dismal track record in this area. The FCC’s failure in fostering a diversity of voices, viewpoints and ownership in the media was a key part of the recent 3rd circuit court’s decision that overturned the FCC’s attempt to relax the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership ban. Free Press argued this case in court, and it was a huge win for the public interest. In response to counter lawsuits filed by a range of media companies the courts upheld every FCC media ownership law, and reasserted their importance even in today’s media ecosystem.

But the current rules may not be enough. We just released a study called “Outsourcing the News” that highlights how local TV stations are using legal agreements and shell companies to circumvent the FCC’s media ownership rules. Around the country hundreds of TV stations have quietly signed over control of their newsroom to one of their competitors, often times merging the newsrooms all together. In the worst cases, this results in one identical news broadcast being simulcast across two or three stations. In other cases, such as Nexstar and Mission broadcasting, one company sets up a shell company so they can create virtual duopolies without running afoul of the FCC. On our website at SaveTheNews.org we have mapped over 100 cases of this “covert consolidation.” This issue got a good deal of attention in the recent FCC future of media report, and will likely be a central theme in the next media ownership review.

The FCC future of media report had a number of other interesting ideas I’m sure we’ll touch on later, like tax code changes related to non-profit journalism, channeling government ad dollars towards local news, expanding state CSPAN networks, and more. But like so many other reports that have come out in the last three years, the FCC report also asserted the importance of a more robust noncommercial media sector.

We’ve argued that in the long term Congress should move towards a public media model like the one that was originally recommended by the Carnegie Commission – one based primarily on a trust fund, not rooted in the political appropriations process. However, with increased funding must come some reforms that will help ensure the system is investing in innovation, serving diverse communities, and has the strongest firewall possible between the funding and the journalism.

To that end, earlier this year we released a study of 14 other democratic nations’ public media systems which examined their governance, accountability and funding structures. Rod Benson, of NYU, was the lead researcher on the project and found that across the board, in every nation, the public broadcasters provided more high-quality, diverse programming, and critical investigations of government than their commercial counterparts. Government funding and public policy – done right – won’t interfere with the independence of journalism. In fact NPR and PBS consistently rank as some of the most trusted journalism institutions in America.

No one is suggesting that all journalism should be nonprofit or publicly funded, but we do believe that – as the first amendment scholar C. Edwin Baker was fond of reminding us – the strongest media systems are the most diverse – in terms of models, funding, and focus. There is a lot of room in America to develop and expand our nonprofit and public journalism sector to fill the gaps of what we have lost, and meet the new information needs of communities.

Finally, those of us concerned about the future of journalism – be it on blogs or broadsheets – must be advocates for policies that ensure universal, affordable broadband for all Americans. I don’t need to tell you, the Internet is the information infrastructure of our time. In the past we relied on our government to expand electricity to rural communities, and to build the roads and bridges that make up our national highway system. Today, we need our government to help connect all people to the information highway.

The Internet is swiftly becoming our printing press, our delivery truck, and our town square. It is lowering the cost of journalism, democratizing the process of reporting, and dismantling old business models faster than the new ones can emerge. As such, the future of journalism depends on Net Neutrality. It is the simple idea that no gatekeeper – government or corporation – can stifle, block or interfere with the free flow of information online. Net Neutrality is the first amendment of the digital age.

It is because of this, that more than 50 online journalism innovators signed a letter to the FCC calling on it to protect Net Neutrality. In doing so, they joined more than two million other citizens who have voiced their concerns to Congress and the FCC. The FCC has implemented some half-rules in this area (which I’m happy to detail further later), but even those are being challenged in court and in Congress.

Each of the policies and issues I’ve discussed are in play right now in Washington. Media ownership, public broadcasting, telecom policy – the government is already deeply engaged in shaping our media in ways that impact the future of journalism. It’s not a matter of if government should be involved, but how. And we’ll end up with the best results if journalists, journalism schools, and the public are part of that debate, not on the sidelines.

As one former Rocky Mountain News copy-editor said to me after the paper closed, “We can’t be objective about our right to exist.”

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