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.

In the print world, postal subsidies are one example of how federal law has molded the economics of journalism. Just as mandating the “public interest, convenience, or necessity” was an intentional statement of principle by Congress, so was the enactment of postal subsidies for the press in the eighteenth century. George Washington and James Madison recommended the subsidies to strengthen the press’s role in the newborn republic, as Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal of the University of Southern California describe in their paper, “Public Policy and Funding the News.” In today’s dollars, mail subsidies provided $2 billion annually to magazines and newspapers at their peak in 1970. They have declined as the postal service has struggled with deficits, but they remain important to the economics of magazines.

Laws passed by state and local governments requiring the publication of legal notices in newspapers have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in additional annual subsidies to journalism. The adamantly free-market Wall Street Journal has a contract with the federal government to print seized-property notices; measured by column inches, the government was the Journal’s top advertiser in a four-week study conducted by Cowan and Westphal. Should we be bemused, given the ardently anti-government philosophy of the Journal’s editorial page? Not unduly; the First Amendment protects hypocritical speech, too.

The question we should focus on is whether, in this time of economic shocks and technological change, the intent of Congress to address the public interest through all these existing policies is being adequately met.


One obvious place for you to begin is with those formal “public interest obligations” undertaken by broadcasters in exchange for their operating licenses. In theory, radio and television stations must demonstrate a commitment to public issues as a condition for FCC license renewal. The stations report in quarterly filings about their performance. In reality, that tradeoff has devolved into something of a farce.

One might think that since your office is at the FCC, Steve, you could go downstairs to some whirring electronic archive and peruse the “P.I.O.” filings, as they are known (P.I.O. stands for “public-interest obligations”) to see how your licensees are doing. As you probably know, however, the P.I.O. rules have been so watered down by special interest lobbyists that stations do not have to actually file their public interest reports with anyone but themselves, as long as they are available to the public during office hours.

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.