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.”