Q&A with FCC Report Head Writer Steve Waldman, Part Two

"Rather than doing it 'once more with feeling,' let’s try something new."

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 second part of an edited transcript of that conversation. To read the first part, click here.

One of the earliest criticisms came from Commissioner Copps in a statement given immediately after the presentation of the report. It was essentially that while it was an admirable move to put the station disclosures online, and make that easily available to citizens, there were no recommendations of what happens next. What can citizens actually do once they find something unsettling in the online databases?

This is a real shift of emphasis for the FCC of some consequence. You have had this system that was based on license denials. In theory, it was supposed to work like this: If you didn’t do enough public interest programming, you would have your license denied. Our report concludes that this system has not really worked. At least, not for a long time: there has only been four license denials in seventy-five years and zero in the last thirty years. Copps looks at that and says it’s because we didn’t enforce it. We looked at it and said that’s part of it but not all of it. There are some really inherent difficulties to making a system like this work effectively.

We agree with Copps that there is a quid pro quo, that in exchange for the use of the airwaves, broadcasters are supposed to serve the community. We’re just saying the system for enforcing that bargain hasn’t worked, and rather than doing it “once more with feeling,” let’s try something new.

We ended up more optimistic about the efficacy of transparency because technology has made it possible for transparency to be a more effective policy tool than it has been in the past. I think that’s a really important point. I myself was kind of a transparency skeptic. I did a big article in Newsweek years ago that was called, “Do Warning Labels Work?” It was all about how transparency and warning labels were sort of the refuge of lazy policymakers—if you wanted to do something but didn’t want to do something all that big, you could do some transparency and it looked like you were doing something and it sounded good. A lot of the time it didn’t work because consumers don’t have time to process all this information, and they don’t have the power that the government has—some of the same arguments that Copps is making, that the FCC is the one in the position to be doing this.

I think the best example of why transparency works now though is the pay-for-play stuff. [The report homes in on pay-for-play deals between local stations and businesses/organizations such as hospitals.] There is a law already, the Sponsorship Identification Law, that says that stations need to disclose it. Obviously, that law hasn’t worked enough to be deterring what we found.

There are two ways you could approach that problem. One is you could do more enforcements, and the FCC did. Two months ago they did some enforcements on video news release use. I think that’s effective. But the law doesn’t say you can’t do it, it just says that if you do it you have to disclose it. So, some people are disclosing it but it’s not having an impact. And disclosure all happens fleetingly; it’s a short mention during the piece or at the end of the show. Now, just imagine a very simple change: put all that online permanently and in a searchable format. Suddenly, the local newspaper reporter once a quarter can write the story about which of the local TV stations is selling off their airwaves to the highest bidder and which isn’t. And the national watchdog group can do, which chains have the most pay-for-play examples, which have the fewest. That’s an instance where you can see that a disclosure approach could be extremely effective.

Also, in the pay-for-play stuff, we still have the rules. This is “in addition to” and not “instead of.” In fact, all the stuff we talked about is in addition to it and not instead of.

Another one of the criticisms I’ve seen was of the recommendation to do away with the localism proceeding. The emphasis is on local, the concern is about local, and yet the localism proceeding—which is a way the agency gets input form the community—is being done away with.

But it hasn’t done anything. The localism proceeding has come up with a couple of specific proposals, which we didn’t agree with. The value of the citizens weighing in was really important, five years ago, when it happened. To me the localism proceeding is an example of the limits of the approach. You had this proceeding, you had hearings, people came in and expressed their opinions, and then nothing happened for four years. Why is this a model of great success?

The comments that people made in the localism proceeding did actually inform our proceeding. That was one of the things that struck me as odd about the reaction. I would flip the argument and say: Why do you care if the localism proceeding is terminated when we just did a 365-page report about promoting local news? The localism proceeding didn’t.

But if you drew from the localism proceeding doesn’t that make an argument for its use and value?

We did use it. But why continue it? What does it actually do? I’m open to argument but I don’t know what it actually does going forward. They put forth a set of specific recommendations which were proposed a few years ago and which the commission hasn’t done anything about and isn’t going to.

I think it was a symbolic blow to people. People had invested time and energy into the localism proceeding and so to terminate the localism proceeding was wounding. Instead of looking at the fact that we just produced this report all about how to move to the next level in terms of improving local communities, which was informed by the localism proceeding and the comments that people gave then and more recently.

I think it’s sort of an inside-the-Beltway thing. I had broadcasters come up to me and say, I don’t know why you’re going to make us keep logs of our music programming for you. And I would say, no one at the FCC thinks that’s going to happen. Well, if that’s the case, we should let the rest of the world in on the secret. If it’s not a live proceeding it should be closed down. The idea that the most effective way for people to help shape the media in their community is to complain to the FCC I think is probably not the right way to look at it. The best way to get involved in media in your community is in your community. And we’re going to try to give you more tools to make it more effective.

I don’t want to be too doctrinaire about this. There are obviously serious requirements that the FCC has and should have for stations. What we’re really talking about is how much of a level of micro-management is effective and appropriate.

Are you optimistic that the recommendations in the report have a chance of becoming reality?

I am, actually. On the disclosure stuff that the FCC has control over, the chairman is very excited about it. So I expect we will move ahead on those. On the general government transparency things, that’s a movement underway that we had nothing to do with launching, and there’s a lot of momentum for it. We have to keep pushing for that. The ad recommendation, I’ve gotten very positive response to because it doesn’t involved spending any additional money, but it could really help local news.

This is the flipside of having your recommendations be pragmatic—they actually have a chance to become a reality.

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