More Reactions to FCC Report

Critics split on whether government should do more or less

The FCC released its staff report, “Information Needs of Communities,” last Thursday and industry and advocacy groups were quick to weigh-in—despite the report being a hefty 475 pages (if you include footnotes). With more time to pore over the report, more reactions are surfacing. Generalizing wildly, thoughts seem to be divided based on expectations (the idealists versus so-called realists), politics (more government intervention versus less), and media philosophy (old versus new media).

Our own initial thoughts, which were cited by a number of reports on the FCC tome, were that its recommendations seemed too light when weighed against the heavy problems that it outlined. Chief among these, as the report goes to pains to point out, is the diminishing quality and quantity of accountability reporting at the local level. And yet no major initiative is suggested to address this. PaidContent’s Joe Mullin is probably right that several of the recommendations are “ones that practically everyone can agree on”—universal broadband, for example, isn’t going to have too many detractors. But it’s the recommendations that aren’t included that are the problem. It feels too full of the kind of watered-down suggestions so inoffensive they would probably make it through Congress.

Press advocacy group Free Press agrees. The group had, last May, sent to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski a series of comments, co-signed by the Media Access Project and the New America Foundation, and a petition signed by more than nine thousand people calling for “bold action.” In a statement released Thursday, Free Press CEO and President Craig Aaron homed in on the FCC report’s recommendation that, in the process of moving disclosures for TV stations online in a more searchable format and using a more streamlined procedure, the enhanced disclosure of television stations’ public service programming should also be removed.

The biggest take away from the agency’s report is that there is still a crisis in quality, local news. However, oddly, the FCC report seems to embrace policies that would make this problem even worse. We are especially disappointed that the Commission is abandoning enhanced disclosure that requires broadcasters to report how much—or how little—local news and programming they air. In essence, this hides the problem this report was intended to help resolve by making it harder to find evidence of the problem.

“We can’t make smart policy if we don’t know what’s going on in our media. It’s ironic that the authors spent so much time and effort gathering and analyzing data on the problems facing the media, yet the report concludes that one solution is to collect less data on the problems with existing local media.

Similarly, the Media Access Project was disappointed with the report’s recommendations. Broadcasting and Cable reports:

“[It] appears to contain a sound diagnosis but falls short on recommendations for treatment,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, MAP SVP and policy director. “The Commission staff surely is right that government cannot address many of the problems created by fundamental changes in the business model for journalism, but the report apparently fails to call for action in one major area where the Commission could make a difference, which is over-the-air broadcasting,” he said.

Much of the reaction seemed to split along the government intervention fault-line—there were those who applauded chief author Steve Waldman’s sentiments that the government would not be the main player in the drama to solve the media’s problems, and those who balked at how little the FCC had called on the government to do apart from streamlining certain processes and funneling its own advertising dollars to local stations. The most dramatic illustration of this split was perhaps the two FCC commissioners themselves, Democrat Michael J. Copps and Republican Robert M. McDowell.

McDowell applauded the limited role of government outlined in the FCC report’s recommendations and supported the report’s conclusions that it would further stamp on the grave of the Fairness Doctrine. As Fox reported:

“I think what happened today at the FCC is positive, but folks shouldn’t be popping any champagne corks just yet,” he said. McDowell warns that traces of the Fairness Doctrine “are still on the books” and it will take some time to truly eliminate them. He says his goal is to get that done by the end of the year.”

But for media advocacy groups who had hoped for the government to step up to the plate in a stronger way, it was Copps who emerged as something of a hero with a strong statement released Thursday, which he read aloud (with some variations) at the FCC’s open meeting. The report and its recommendations, he said, “are not the bold response for which I hoped and dared to dream.”

…the overarching conclusion of the Staff Report seems to be that America’s media landscape is mostly vibrant and there is no overall crisis of news or information. But there is a crisis when, as this Report tells us, more than one-third of our commercial broadcasters offer little to no news whatsoever to their communities of license. America’s news and information resources keep shrinking and hundreds of stories that could inform our citizens go untold and, indeed, undiscovered. Where is the vibrancy when hundreds of newsrooms have been decimated and tens of thousands of reporters are walking the street in search of a job instead of working the beat in search of a story?

Copps reacted particularly strongly to the suggestion that the FCC abandon its localism proceedings, and, noting the report’s suggestion that disclosures be made easily available online, questioned the effectiveness of moving disclosures online without providing any recourse to the public for whom the information is now available.

But let’s also remember that disclosure is a means to an end—not an end in itself. If disclosure brings to public light actions that require redress, where is the redress to be found? Some will doubt whether it is to be found in a Commission that has for most of 30 years sworn off public interest rules and guidelines. Why would consumers bother to plumb the Internet looking at public files if there is so little confidence their effort will be rewarded with remedial action?

At the American Journalism Review, editor and senior vice president Rem Reider plays realist, describing the report as “the death knell for the notion that the answer to the field’s myriad problems is a federal bailout.” And that’s good, he argues, name checking the Downie-Schudson report published in CJR in 2009 that called for an “FCC-bankrolled Fund For Local News” (Rieder’s words), the very kind of bold initiative that might actually go some way to addressing the problems outlined in the new report’s first few hundred pages. Reminding us of the bind that public money can put outlets in—“as NPR’s panicked sacking of CEO Vivian Schiller suggests, the largesse for public broadcasting does not come without serious costs,” he writes—Reider says that calls for government money, popular three years ago, are now completely unrealistic.

More government assistance seemed a nonstarter at the time. And now, with Congress searching frantically for ways to slash spending, and given the Tea Party disdain for the “lamestream” media, the chances are slim and none, and slim left town.

Corporate reactions have been streaming in, too. An e-mail from Patch, posted at Poynter, saw the granddaddy of global hyperlocal arguing that it was working hard to fill the gap in local reporting that the report outlined. Time Warner Cable signaled its approval, while Hearst Television’s David Barrett’s reaction suggested local TV broadcasters were pleased by the report’s suggestions their hands be somewhat untied.

One of the more interesting reactions, for my money, has come from Tom Grubisich, editorial director of Local America, writing at the website Street Fight, which covers news about hyperlocals. Grubisich says the problem with the report is that it thinks too much in terms of old media models involving print and broadcast—in both diagnosis and recommendations—and concludes that its “back-to-the-future prescription for community news in the digital era is a big disappointment.”

To make the point, Grubisich excerpts this piece from the report:

“…to get to the level of accountability journalism [in local reporting] that likely existed in 2000, the media sector would need to hire roughly 5,000 reporters, costing about $265 million…. The U.S. spends $560 billion a year on K-12 schools, with increasingly discouraging results. It would cost about $231 million a year to ensure that every school system has at least a half-time reporter covering schools.”

He then argues that thinking about the need to get to 2000-level reporting—and more importantly, 2000-style reporting—is counterproductive. In the digital age, we need to think about how to direct resources to the most efficient and effective coverage possible with digital means. That means data.

These old-model calculations totally ignore what could be achieved if websites, particularly hyperlocals, used their digital resources more imaginatively, and aggressively. Assigning a half-time or even full-time reporter to local schools is no guarantee of accountability. There’s a better and less-expensive way to achieve results: The website, accessing open data from the Web, draws up a list of school performance indicators—“hard” data like test results (both snapshots of how students are currently performing and what they did in earlier grades) and “softer” data like teacher evaluation and improvement and parental engagement. The data is then compared to similar data from schools in neighboring communities and from elsewhere in the metro region, especially localities with similar demographics. Finally, all the data—with chart and map visualizations that make sometimes complex metrics easy to understand—is presented to the community—both experts (including local school system officials) and the “wisdom of the crowd” for an unedited, sustained online discussion, where commenters may present data of their own.

Grubisich concludes by writing, “Balancing data, journalism and community feedback is much more likely to produce accountability than sending a reporter to a six-hour school board hearing and having him/her interview four of five usual suspects for mostly meaningless one-paragraph ‘message’ quotes—the old journalism that the FCC report apparently wants to resuscitate.”

Of course, there are complications with data reporting on schools—see LynNell Hancock’s CJR cover story on the issue here. But it’s worth noting the example that Grubisich supplies of this kind of reporting was not a name-and-shame teacher chart but a nifty contradiction of a press release sent out by then-D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , ,