Next FCC chairman will impact journalism

Why journalists should care who succeeds Julius Genachowski

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced last month that he was stepping down, and journalism advocates have since been lining up to voice opinions on what Genachowski’s successor should do differently in dealing with media. They want an FCC chief who will put an end to further media consolidation, make political ads more transparent, and increase diversity of media ownership and coverage.

Newspapers may not operate on airwaves that require FCC licenses, and journalism is certainly not a top priority for the commission, but many decisions the agency makes directly impacts our industry; journalists have a far greater stake in what the FCC does than simply reporting on the commission’s actions, and we should care about who President Obama nominates next to head the agency.

Journalists should care who the next FCC chief is because:

—That person will likely decide whether Rupert Murdoch and other big media owners will be allowed to own both newspapers and TV or radio stations in large markets.

—With more newspapers reducing print schedules and relying solely on digital, the next FCC chair will determine ways to either make broadband more accessible and cheaper or whether to maintain the status quo, with rising prices and a limited number of competitors in the marketplace.

—The FCC is the only agency with a mandate to make the media more diverse, local, and accountable. A new chief could choose to use its enforcement powers to ensure diversity is reflected in the voices, perspectives, and owners in media.

—The new chairperson could also determine whether to make political advertising more transparent in TV ads and online.

The FCC cannot cure all that ails journalism in this fragmented and digital age, but it “can help the news industry and the journalistic profession address these challenges and make the most of the new opportunities,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a professor in Denmark and Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, in a blog post late last month.

Genachowski, nominated as chairman four years ago by President Obama, will leave behind a mixed legacy in media policy circles. With the publication of his “Information Needs of Communities” report, Genachowski acknowledged, at least tacitly, that the commission does have some authority in addressing the challenges confronting the news industry and the changing media landscape. On the other hand, some public policy advocates accuse Genachowski of being too chummy with industry lobbyists, while groups like the Newspaper Association of America believe he’s been too slow in completing tasks like reviewing media ownership rules; Genachowski’s FCC still hasn’t completed the 2010 review, which needs to be done before the next review is due in 2014.

In his blog post, Nielsen argues that while the FCC recognized some of the challenges taking place in the news industry, no major policy initiatives were presented in the Information Needs study, and that Genachowski has done little to address the few minor recommendations the report offers.

Expanding broadband

Craig Aaron, President and CEO of Free Press, which advocates for quality journalism, public media, and cheaper broadband access, says the new chairman should be nothing like the old chairman.

Aaron maintains that cable and Internet rates rose under Genachowski’s watch, widening the gap between those who have effective access to the Internet and those who don’t. Aaron also says that Genachowski paid little to no attention to media diversity, reiterating that the FCC is the only agency mandated to make the media more diverse, local, and accountable.

“When [Genachowski] took the helm, most consumers had at best two choices for home broadband: the local phone company or the local cable company. Four years later, we have the same two choices — only now they cost more,” Aaron wrote in an email blast to supporters. He said the FCC chairman focused on broadband to the near-total exclusion of all other issues, even diversity, though women and people of color own just a tiny fraction of broadcast licenses.

Minority ownership and representation

Robert “Bob” L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), the nation’s first television network providing news, music, sports, and public affairs programming for an African American audience, agrees that the new FCC chair needs to prioritize media diversity and media ownership issues.

“We need someone who actually cares about those issues,” Johnson told CJR, adding that he is not interested in the job. Johnson called current FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn (the daughter of the third-ranking House Democrat and former majority whip Jim Clyburn), a strong replacement for Genachowski. Commissioners, appointed by the president, serve five-year terms; one commissioner is named chairman. Other names for possible FCC chief are getting bandied about too, including venture capitalist Tom Wheeler, a fundraiser for President Obama.

Ownership limits

Another hot topic in media circles right now is whether the FCC will further ease the 1975 media ownership rule, which limits the ability of a single entity to own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same large market. Opponents are painting the possible rule change, proposed by Genachowski, as a path toward bigger media monopolies as well as a ‘giveaway’ to News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch, who already owns two TV stations in Los Angeles, has made no secret that he now also wants the Los Angeles Times.

The Newspaper Association of America and National Association of Broadcasters both support relaxing the ownership rule, while public media advocates warn it may be bad for the public interest. Changing the anti-monopoly rule is the sole policy agenda for the NAA. Relaxing the rule is the one area the organizations believes the government can do something that’s positive for newspapers, said Paul Boyle, the group’s senior vice president of public policy.

“What we have argued is that anybody that’s willing to invest in newspapers should be applauded, not discouraged through a ban that has been in place for nearly 40 years,” Boyle said. “There are situations where newspapers might come come on the market and there could be a broadcast owner in that market that would want to invest in that newspaper. This longstanding rule should not prohibit that kind of resources coming to newspapers.”

Policy advocates, including Free Press, say changing the rule will not only open the door to more consolidation but will also further reduce the diversity of perspectives and voices in the marketplace—and lead to more unemployed journalists.

The Minority Media and Telecom Council is currently conducting a study to determine the impact of changing the rule. A decision appears delayed due to Genachowski’s resignation announcement.

Political ad disclosures

A year ago the FCC told broadcasters in the top 50 TV markets to post political advertising information online (public policy advocates want even more disclosure, such as including names of major contributors be listed directly on ads). The current FCC rule will be extended to all broadcasters within the next two years.

Forcing radio and TV stations to reveal how much they charge political candidates puts them at a competitive disadvantage, said Dennis Wharton, the National Association of Broadcasters’s executive vice president of communications, because cable and Internet companies, including Google, do not have to do the same.

“If the desire here is for more transparency in the political process, why wouldn’t you extend that rule to other media, including cable and Internet? …What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he added. “What’s good for broadcasters ought to be good for cable companies as well. The FCC has yet to give us an explanation as to why they are only singling out broadcasters for this requirement.”

No date was given for Genachowski’s official last day on the job.

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Tracie Powell writes about the media and media policy, specifically on issues regarding piracy, media ownership, government transparency and the business of journalism. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she lives in Washington, DC. She has contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil. Tags: , ,