FCC Taps Waldman to Study “State of the Media”

Beliefnet founder to make policy recommendations to ensure "a vibrant media landscape"

Steven Waldman, veteran journalist and co-founder of Beliefnet, has been tapped by the FCC to lead an agency-wide initiative designed “to assess the state of media in these challenging economic times and make recommendations designed to ensure a vibrant media landscape.”

Waldman announced the move to his readers in a Beliefnet blog entry yesterday afternoon. Calling the piece “the most difficult (and surreal) post I’ve had to write,” Waldman declared: “In mid November, I’ll be stepping down as President and Editor in Chief to lead a project on the future of the media for the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that sets rules for the communications industry.” Of his departure from the organization he conceived in 1997, funded in early ’99, founded in late ’99, and shepherded through a dizzying course of highs and lows: “I feel an intense mix of sadness, excitement and pride.”

Waldman added: “I know Julius Genachowski, the new chairman of the FCC, quite well. He’s as talented, honest and decent a person as you’ll find in public service.”

The feeling is, apparently, mutual. “Steve Waldman is uniquely qualified to look at this shifting terrain and make sure we meet this moment wisely,” Genachowski said in the FCC release announcing Waldman’s move. “He was an award-winning journalist in traditional media and then became an Internet pioneer—launching, running, and bringing to profitability one of the great content success stories. He’s also known for his even-handedness and has garnered respect from people of widely different ideologies and approaches.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however. Over at the Business and Media Institute, Dan Gainor writes:

To hear Genachowski call it, Waldman is a “a highly respected Internet entrepreneur and journalist.” He’s a bit more than that—a reliably liberal voice who will now be crafting “recommendations to meet the traditional goals of serving the public interest and making sure that all Americans receive the information, educational content, and news they seek.”

Gainor raises an important point; not about Waldman’s ‘liberal’ bias, per se, but about the broader notion (and tension) of FCC—which is to say, governmental—involvement in the practice and production of journalism. The investigations Waldman will undertake in his new role represent, in many ways, the culmination of an assumption that’s been gaining currency among those invested, figuratively and literally, in public-interest journalism: that, when it comes to the oft-discussed ‘media landscape,’ we’ve come, essentially, to a cliff. It’s a make-or-break moment; and the market, many now (if reluctantly) believe, is no longer able to sustain the quality information that society—and democracy—require. As the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy—a kind of Hutchins Commission for the present media moment—put it: “The current financial challenges facing private news media could pose a crisis for democracy.”

One result: journalists and journalism-watchers have recently become much more open than they’ve been in the past to the notion of governmental intervention in public-interest journalism. As Reed Hundt, former FCC chair—speaking at the launch of the Knight Commission’s ambitious report on the future of journalism earlier this month—put it: “A world where disinformation rules—that’s a world in which democracy is put out on thin ice. We don’t want that world.” The Knight report recommended, among other things, that government regulators “direct media policy toward innovation, competition, and support for business models that provide marketplace incentives for quality journalism.” And Columbia’s own Graduate School of Journalism—through our “Reconstruction of American Journalism” report—recommended, by way of a full re-imagining of the media marketplace, a national Fund for Local News that would be “created with fees the Federal Communications Commission collects from or could impose on telecom users, broadcast licensees, or Internet service providers.”

Still, despite the evolving openness to the idea of governmental involvement in news…this is precarious ground. A fact that Genachowski, in the FCC press release, acknowledges—and, in some ways, assuages:

“A strong consensus has developed that we’re at a pivotal moment in the history of the media and communications, because of game-changing new technologies as well as the economic downturn,” said Genachowski. “Highly respected entities have called on the FCC to assess these issues. At such a moment, it is important to ensure that our policies promote a vibrant media landscape that furthers long-standing goals of serving the information needs of communities. The initiative is intended to identify the best ideas for achieving those goal, while recognizing that government must be scrupulous in abiding by the First Amendment and never dictating or controlling the content of the news or other communications protected by the First Amendment.”

Waldman provides a similar reassurance on the matter: “Most solutions,” he said, “will come from the private and nonprofit sectors.”

But government rules already affect the media landscape in profound ways so it’s imperative that we both vigorously protect the First Amendment and determine which media policies make sense, which don’t. Unwise government policies can undermine business models and hinder innovation. Smart policy can help businesses, facilitate innovation, and ensure a thriving media marketplace.”


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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.