Which brings us to the idea of making transparency a cornerstone of media policy. The main remaining element of the public interest obligation is the requirement that broadcasters maintain—on paper, in a filing cabinet—a “public inspection file.” The FCC has proposed replacing the paper files with an online system. Not exactly a radical concept here in 2012. What’s more, technology has made what was once a fairly limp public policy tool—“disclosure”—into something potent. For instance, stations already keep records on how much political advertising is purchased on their channels. Putting that information online would allow the public and reporters to better understand the flow of money in political campaigns.
This approach could enable broadcasters to meaningfully fulfill their public interest responsibilities, but in a First Amendment-friendly way. Tellingly, the deans of the major journalism schools—as sensitive as anyone to press freedom—came out overwhelmingly in favor of the FCC rule.
Yet, amazingly, the local TV news industry—ever eager to demand transparency from others—is opposing the central elements of this initiative, too.
One gets the strong sense that broadcasters are happy to have a “public inspection file” as long as the public is not actually inspecting it. For instance, four TV licensees (in San Diego, Texas, New Mexico, and Illinois) objected to a proposal that the public be notified on air about the existence of the file. “Such announcements may arouse the public’s interest in examining a PIF, but the Licensees do not believe that the Commission should attempt to stimulate such examinations.” Right. We wouldn’t want the public so “aroused” that they would, in their words, play “Sherlock Holmes” rather than engaging station managers in “productive dialogue.”
A comment filed by the stations owned by the major TV networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and Univision) suggested that researchers should not expect their task to be made easier by the Internet. “Research by its nature requires the expenditure of effort,” they wrote. And for reporters, “a certain amount of leg work is eminently practical.” (One almost expects them to next blurt out, “in my day, we didn’t have no new-fangled Intertubes; we had to go to the damn library and they should too!”)
It’s almost as if these companies—did I mention that they’re news organizations?—believe their first obligation is to offer creative character-building obstacles to getting information, not to better inform the public.
Let me be honest: as I looked through the possible ways of fixing the broken public interest obligation system, I recommended the one that was least onerous to the broadcasters. Mind you, that wasn’t the reason I picked it; I do believe that in a digital age, transparency done well can be a powerful tool for accountability. But digitizing these disclosures should enable them to better serve their communities and possibly even ultimately reduce their burdens.
Many local news organizations really try to inform their residents, and want to improve. For them, we figured, let’s breathe life into the public interest obligation system in a way that can help them play an even more constructive role. We even recommended some ideas desired by broadcasters. We proposed eliminating the final vestiges of the Fairness Doctrine. We suggested that the federal government shift some of its national advertising budgets—which has been as much as $1 billion per year—toward local media, including TV stations, to help sustain local journalism. We proposed replacing the overly complex “enhanced disclosure” form—intended to log what local programming a station is doing—with a simpler online form. (That idea is on a separate regulatory track and has been endorsed in principle by some forward-thinking broadcasting companies. Perhaps some of the more journalism-minded stations will even offer an approach to the political file dispute that puts them on the side of transparency.)
Yet so far all we’ve seen is the local TV news industry united in opposition to a proposal to make the political and media system more transparent by taking the information they already collect and putting it online — leading us back to the question: What is the fate of the “public interest obligation”? To review: Broadcasters oppose old-fashioned regulatory approaches. They so far oppose modern disclosure efforts. And they oppose free market strategies. To preserve their special form of corporate welfare, they have effectively adopted the motto, “if it is broke, why fix it?”
The answer to that question may have been provided by, of all people, Pope Benedict XVI. In a filing with the FCC, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops noted the Pope’s warning of the “distortion that occurs when the media industry becomes self-serving or solely profit driven, losing the sense of accountability to the common good.” Online disclosure requirements, the Bishops suggested, “move broadcasters closer to that sense of accountability.” Amen to that.