The problem is that the media policies that govern us in 2010—a patchwork stitched from the ideas of Calvin Coolidge’s Republican Party, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and Ronald Reagan’s deregulatory wave—have been overtaken by technological change.

From the country’s founding, American media and journalism have been continually remade by technological innovation. Political pamphlets made room for industrially printed newspapers, which made room for the telegraph, which made room for radio, which made room for broadcast television, which made room for cable and satellite services, which made room for the World Wide Web, which is making room even as we read this for the Kindle, iPad, and mobile phone applications.

When such technological, industrial, and economic changes dislodge the assumptions underlying public policy, the smart response is to update and adjust policy in order to protect the public interest. And politically plausible reforms that would clearly serve the public are within reach. It is time to reboot the system.


In fairness to the skeptics, the media policy debate that has occurred in Washington since the World Wide Web arrived has been polluted by parochialism. As the Great Recession descended in 2008, for example, newspaper publishers sidled up to Congress to seek further antitrust exemptions. That economically harmless, if morally unattractive, proposal made it seem that publishers and their friends on the Hill believed the future of journalism was inseparable from the future of newspapers. That is obviously untrue.

There followed a series of proposals focused primarily, it often seemed, on the replacement of laid-off reporters’ incomes—a proposal, for example, to issue citizen vouchers to pay for arts or journalism; another to establish a journalism division within Americorps; and my own thinking aloud at a Senate hearing about incorporating journalism within the writ of the National Endowment for the Humanities. All of these ideas suffered from a whiff of desperation; they were also implausible politically.

The Knight Foundation, the Open Society Institute, Herbert and Marion Sandler, and other philanthropists have lately funded a more convincing series of nonprofit journalism experiments, and some of them—ProPublica, for example—have already produced exemplary work. None of these nonprofit experiments can yet claim to be self-sustaining, however.

In such an environment it is easy to sympathize with the media analyst Jeff Jarvis, who argues, “The only way that journalism is going to be sustainable is if it is profitable.” The great majority of American journalism has always been and always will be conducted within for-profit enterprises. At present, much of the print and digital news media are finding healthy profits to be elusive, but we should hope and assume that journalism will eventually benefit again from the independence, innovation, and continual regeneration that often arise with the profit motive.

Even in emphasizing this point, however, we do not absolve ourselves of the need to reform our aging media policy regime. Ideologically diverse politicians constructed that regime during the twentieth century precisely to manage the public interest within a market-dominated system. If those old policies are reformed and modernized—as I hope you and your FCC colleagues will recommend—the philosophical premise that market forces should predominantly shape American journalism need not and should not change.

Fortunately, in your windowless chamber at the Commission, Steve, you are in the right federal agency to recast the media policy debate in this way. The FCC oversees a large section of the historical media policy regime and can make constructive recommendations about the rest of that regime. You have an opportunity to look carefully, with a wonk’s Coke-bottle glasses, at the laws and regulations we already have, to see how they are working and how they might be improved, given the changes technology has lately wrought.

Our inherited policy regime is constructed on a foundation of more than a dozen major pieces of federal legislation, as well as in the regulatory rules and state and local laws. One of the most important underlying statutes, as you know, is the Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC in the first place. The act is a successor to the Radio Act of 1927, which was passed by a Republican-led Congress at the end of the Coolidge boom years.

We needed these laws at the time to manage chaos and to define the public’s interest as new technologies remade journalism. Unregulated radio broadcasting had produced a cacophony of crossed signals on the public airwaves. To impose order, Congress adopted a geographical scheme. To undergird it, the bill’s authors borrowed from public utility regulators the principled language that would guide specific policy decisions about broadcast media for decades, up to this day: that broadcasting should be managed by the government in the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.”

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.