Two weeks ago, the FCC released its long-awaited, 365-page report, “The Information Needs of Communities.” The report’s chief writer, Steve Waldman—co-founder of News Corp.’s Beliefnet and a former Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report staffer—has been doing the rounds this week, sounding alarms about the precipitous drop in local accountability reporting outlined in his tome, and selling and defending recommendations some have called “disappointing.” Among those recommendations: the creation of state SPANs in every state; doing away with the localism proceeding and enhanced disclosure; funneling federal government advertising, for things like military recruitment, to local media; and, requiring local TV stations to put disclosures, such as pay-as-you pay, online. Conspicuously absent: A hefty government-signed check.
Last Friday, CJR’s Joel Meares met with Waldman in midtown Manhattan to discuss the reaction to his report, the enormous task of putting it together, and specific criticisms of its recommendations. This is the first part of an edited transcript of that conversation. A second part will be published tomorrow.
What have you made of the responses so far?
To summarize, it would be: good report, disappointing recommendations. Conservatives like that the recommendations were restrained and liberals were disappointed that the recommendations were restrained.
Was it the reaction you were expecting?
I don’t think of the recommendations as being particularly restrained, but they are in the sense of what the normal grooves of this discussion are. If the way you judge “bigness” is Fairness Doctrine and regulatory intervention, program guidelines, or massive new infusions of money into PBS and NPR—if those are pretty much how you decide whether something is big or not—then that’s true. We didn’t call for massive new government subsidies, and we were against the Fairness Doctrine.
But we made a lot of effort to try to come up with some ideas that were innovative, pragmatic, and practical, and that would actually be effective and not just push people’s buttons. Like the advertising idea—is that a small thing, or a big thing? [Note: one recommendation was for the federal government to direct its near-$1 billion national advertising budget to local media.] Is that a liberal idea or a conservative idea? The money there is twice the size of the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
In reports about the report, that recommendation hasn’t gotten as much attention as some of the others.
I guess one disappointing but totally not-surprising thing when you write a 365-page report is that people mostly focus on the high-level analytic point and the recommendations. I feel pretty good about the press coverage of the high-level finding, which is this combination of many parts of the media landscape being very vibrant, but there being a couple of problem areas that are worth really addressing. (And one of them is really serious: local accountability reporting.)
But I think there are a lot of secondary points that are interesting in the report. For instance, I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the role of the nonprofit sector in all this. The nonprofit sector is really very different than what I would have thought of it as and what a lot of people think of it as—it’s playing a bigger and different role. It’s very diverse. The policy implications of that are different.
People tend to think that the alternative to commercial media is PBS. Our view is that PBS and NPR are really important, but there’s this much broader world of nonprofit media now. The sources of innovation there, and the public policy implications, are different. Part of what makes this hard is that they’re different in each case; there is like eight to nine different subcultures in the nonprofit sector. They add up to a pretty significant part of the media system, at least when we’re talking about accountability reporting, but each one of them is kind of small and on their own—public access channels, low-power FM, state SPANS, and, probably most prevalently, this world of nonprofit websites, which is really important.
Is it fair to say that the report’s attitude towards that sector is to free things up, allow more movement and innovation, and to just get out of the way of change there?
That is fair. We started off with the premise that the nonprofit sector really is going to be an important element. That, I think, is one of the more important conclusions. Then we go, okay, well, what can we do about that? We first look at obstacles, the low-hanging fruit. People are trying to do incredible, creative things, and we should at least not make it harder for them.