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.

A group of researchers led by my colleague Tom Glaisyer recently collected and reviewed filings in several cities, to sample the health of the public interest regime. Here in Washington, they wandered over to WUSA 9, a CBS affiliate with a not-bad record of local news broadcasting. In a recent quarterly report, WUSA’s staff dutifully listed its contributions to the public interest. On the public issue of “Child Abuse,” for example, on April 27, 2010, the station broadcast, for two minutes, the following story:

Authorities say Janay Morgan Majors shot and killed her husband…. It happened inside the couple’s home on Lanes Corner Road in Spotsylvania County…. ‘She did call and said, ‘I shot my husband,’ Lieutenant James Bibens told 9 News Now….

After that Public Interest Report comes another on the issue of “Domestic Abuse.” The date of that story is listed as June 18, 2010. The story begins: “Authorities say Janay Morgan Majors shot and killed her husband….” The text is identical to that illuminating Child Abuse.

Pity the poor junior staff members who must waste time and paper on this charade at WUSA and hundreds of other stations. Nor are the WUSA public interest filings exceptionally bad; they are typical. The very existence of such a Dickensian system of busywork and evasion is a symptom of how broken the public interest component of our inherited federal media policy regime has become. I hope your report will seize the opportunity to delve into this travesty.

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.