Editor’s Note: On June 9, 2011, the FCC’s Future of Media Project released a report on the state of local accountability journalism and the governmental policies that foster or inhibit that journalism. In the November/December 2010 issue of CJR, Steve Coll penned this open letter to the report’s lead author, Steven Waldman.

Steven Waldman

Future of Media Project

Federal Communications Commission

445 12th Street, SW

Washington, DC 20554

Dear Steve,

Welcome back to Washington, belatedly. It was a year ago that the Federal Communications Commission announced your appointment as senior adviser and leader of the Future of Media Project, an inspired choice in light of your distinctive and distinguished background as a print journalist and web entrepreneur. It is a privilege to take on any assignment to advance the public interest, but we permanent residents of the capital apologize for your working conditions. For some reason the people who organize federal office buildings prefer to crowd policymakers like you into cramped warrens without ambient light. I hope the setting has at least concentrated your mind.

To some extent, as often happens in policymaking, the Future of Media Project’s mandate requires you to review questions to which the answers are known. Your purpose, as you have written, is to “assess whether all Americans have access to vibrant, diverse sources of news and information that will enable them to enrich their lives, their communities, and our democracy.” Only two in five Americans can name the three branches of their constitutional government, so it would be surprising if you brought forward a simple “yes” in reply to that question. In fact, we are expecting that some time around the end of the year you’ll issue a report that will lay out, in a detailed and hardheaded way, the options for public policy reform that might strengthen the media’s contributions to American democracy and civic health.

That is the critical question for the FCC and other Washington agencies—whether there are specific decisions Congress or regulators can take to bolster journalism’s centuries-old role in our constitutional system as a watchdog, educator, and convener of the public square. The answer seems clear: we badly require new policies and new thinking in Washington because the media policy regime we have inherited is out of date and inadequate for the times in which we live.

I recognize that this is not a mainstream view among journalists. We have been passing through a period of upheaval in our profession. We have seen the collapse of traditional newspaper business models, the hemorrhaging of thousands of well-paying newsroom jobs, and the rise of disruptive—and highly promising—new digital technologies and social media. Still, many journalists seem to abhor the idea that government should enact any new laws or reallocate any federal funding in response to these changes.

Admirably, journalists carry powerful antibodies to any hint that government might encroach on press freedom. Unfortunately, as a result, our profession often seems unable to explore public policy questions affecting the media in a serious way. For example, when the staff of the Federal Trade Commission, a few blocks north and west of your office, circulated a draft report earlier this year that listed possible new policy ideas to strengthen journalism—some of them, admittedly, very bad ideas—the reaction from the press was not constructive. On Reliable Sources, media reporter Howard Kurtz said that he understood that “the government has always provided indirect subsidies like postal subsidies, and there’s funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” Yet, he continued, “I personally think it’s a horrible idea for the government to give any kind of funding, because it carries the aura of politicization.” Such purism—which if adopted probably would kill off Big Bird, Frontline, and PBS NewsHour, and seriously damage All Things Considered and Morning Edition—seems on its face extreme. It accurately reflects, however, the from-the-gut tenor of anti-government thinking among journalists that has, I’m afraid, helped to confuse many of the issues you are reviewing for the FCC.

The question you confront is not whether the government should allocate public funds to shape media and journalism. It already does. We have inherited a policy regime that is breathtaking in its scope and impact, and that goes well beyond mail subsidies and CPB funds, important though those have been. It exists in part because journalism is a form of commerce that must be taxed and regulated like all other commerce. Also, a great deal of journalism is influenced by government regulation because it is delivered across public or quasi-public property: the airwaves, government-granted cable monopolies, satellite bands, and the like. It would be no wiser to abandon altogether the policies that set rules and allocate funds across this system than it would be to stop regulating oil leases in ocean waters or maintaining public parks.

Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute based in Washington, and is the author of six nonfiction books. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and previously worked for twenty years as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and senior editor at The Washington Post.