While still a commissioner, I went one day to visit the editorial page editor of a major newspaper. I had noticed an editorial chastising the excesses of big oil companies, and I urged the paper to run a similar critique about the excesses of big media. The response I got was a negative shake of the head and an explanation that the editor had complete freedom to cover any issue—except one. That issue was media ownership. I nearly fell through the floor at this stark admission, but then I realized that the explicit statement I had just heard only validated what I had been experiencing.
Many in the news business told me that the future of our media is not a sufficiently compelling popular issue to justify its coverage. Yet how well I remember three million citizens writing in to oppose the FCC’s loosened media ownership rules that were approved in 2003 over my dissent. This outpouring of public sentiment caused Congress to go on record against those rules. (Soon a federal court, equally unimpressed with the FCC handiwork, sent them back to the agency.) The commission tried again to loosen the rules in 2007 and 2012. But it’s a beat not covered, so most of the country didn’t have a clue that these rules changes were still in play.
You will not be surprised to learn that I believe there is much the FCC should be doing to revitalize America’s media. The FCC’s job, by statute, is to protect “the public interest.” The idea is that the airwaves are a public resource, belonging to all the people. No business, no individual, actually owns them. Rather, broadcasters are granted licenses to use the airwaves in return for serving the common good.
The FCC could usher in a new “Era of the Public Interest” by learning to say “No!” to merger proposals that will wreak further havoc on our news and information infrastructure. This is the essential first step.
Next, the FCC should implement a credible broadcast licensing system. An automatic, no-questions-asked eight-year extension is nothing more than conferring monopoly power with no public oversight. For years, the FCC had licensing guidelines—performance measures the agency considered when a station’s license was up for renewal. They emphasized opportunities for local self-expression, public affairs programs, news, service to minority groups—an issue of grave neglect—and limitations on advertising. Stations were expected to consult with local audiences about what issues merited coverage. The commission never did a credible job of implementing these guidelines and, as the power of big media grew, the agency basically abandoned them.
As for new media, I have already emphasized the critical need for the FCC to guarantee an open internet and to ensure ubiquitous broadband. Here’s another suggestion and it involves both the FCC and you as journalists. How about generating a national discussion on the future of the internet? Not fear-mongering about “regulating” the internet, but a reasoned discussion on how the country should deal with it as so many of life’s experiences and opportunities go online. Perhaps the current controversy about an open internet will stimulate a broader discussion. Given your stake in how the internet evolves, who better to help generate this dialogue?
I have heard the arguments about the need to keep reporters from becoming part of the story and being tainted by involvement in public policy formation. But journalism, like government, is not a purist’s redoubt. Consider the issue of government surveillance. Battles over protecting news sources were frontpage news during the dramatic National Security Agency revelations. Journalists are obviously part of that story—in some ways they are the story—advocating for stronger legislative safeguards to protect themselves and their profession when they disclose controversial national security information.
Yet national security source protection is one component of a wider range of privacy challenges growing out of an environment where advertisers, content producers, and politicians want to know everything about us. Frankly, most citizens I meet worry as much, or more, about their personal privacy than national security disclosure. It is difficult for me to detect a bright line between these two privacy issues, yet one seems to elicit more journalist advocacy than the other.
An old axiom has it that decisions without you are usually decisions against you. Journalists can refuse to be part of the story, but that means they won’t be part of the solution either.
Michael J. Copps