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.”
How, exactly, to interpret and meet this standard has been much debated since then. The practical issues flowing from Congress’s public interest aspirations changed continually as media technologies changed, and as powerful commercial interests lobbied for favors. The result is a system in which federal, state, and local regulators pervasively set the economic conditions in which for-profit and nonprofit journalism is produced, while, at the same time, they require certain noncommercial activities from licensees, meant to promote and protect the public interest.
The FCC oversees, primarily in broadcasting, the ways in which the public is compensated—in cash or by mandated public interest endeavors—for the use of scarce spectrum on the airwaves. At the heart of this regime, the commission oversees formal “public interest obligations” undertaken by broadcasters in exchange for their licenses to operate. I want to return to those obligations shortly, because I think they offer a large opportunity for reform.
Your colleagues oversee a large number of other media policies designed to defend the public interest: political speech regulations, children’s television regulations, emergency broadcasting rules, the “equal time” rule governing the access of politicians to airwaves during election campaigns, and other rules designed to protect the public.
Separately, through implementation of the “must carry” rules passed by Congress (also justified in the name of the public interest), local cable regulators across the country have, in effect, constructed the economics of local television news. They have done this by ensuring that local broadcast stations could expand their metropolitan audiences as the number of cable customers increased. “Must carry” laws meant that, as cable systems grew rapidly after the 1970s, cable monopolists operating under government charter had no choice but to carry—for free—local stations that they might not otherwise have supported. Thus the pervasive “Action News” culture of local broadcast stations made indelible by Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show is not the adaptive survivor of pure Darwinian free-market forces. Federal law nurtured it. C-SPAN, too, is a direct product of cable regulatory mandates.