The Business Media Misses a Big Story in Washington

The battle over the FCC's decision to support "a la carte" cable for consumers should make for a great story - if only the press would write it.

At a Senate hearing on indecent programming earlier this week, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin shocked the cable industry by suggesting that consumers (and especially worried parents) would be much better served if they could buy cable channels individually or in family-themed groupings — the “a la carte” method — rather than the huge bundle they are sold today.

Martin’s testimony was the clearest evidence to date that the FCC wants to stick its nose in a business over which it currently has no authority. It was also a major salvo in the ongoing battle between the cable companies, and a broad coalition of consumers, activists and government officials who would like to see them regulated. A thorough examination of this battle would make for a rich story, one that would nicely encapsulate the push and pull of business policy-making in Washington while also featuring a colorful cast of characters that includes grandstanding politicians, powerful media moguls, DC’s highest paid lobbyists, the right-wing “family” brigade and, of course, Janet Jackson’s breast (which helped spark the debate in the first place).

Well, we’ve seen the breast — but not the story. Instead, most coverage has consisted of political reporters’ paraphrased overviews of who said what on Capitol Hill, or superficial attempts by business reporters to map the cable industry’s financial and competitive landscape. Perhaps because neither breed of reporter is willing to hunt for stories in unfamiliar (or jealously guarded) territory, their pieces — about all industries, not just cable — fail to show how corporations actually operate in Washington and the extent to which business and politics overlap in this country.

Take, for example, the Wall Street Journal, which published two long pieces this week about the proceedings on the Hill. The first story, on Tuesday, reported the scoop that the FCC had decided to come out in support of the a la carte method. The following day, the paper ran a page one article (subscription required) congratulating itself for the earlier scoop and reporting that the FCC chairman had used the Senate hearing to make the FCC’s new stance public.

The second piece (subscription required) was actually the most comprehensive coverage of this issue to appear in the mainstream media so far. It dutifully explored both sides from a financial perspective, pointing out for example that small networks like Oxygen might go bust if they’re forced to find their own subscribers. It also correctly notes that phone companies and Apple’s iPod might enter the cable business, in which case the cable companies would be forced to adapt, presumably by giving consumers more choice over what they watch.

What the Journal doesn’t do, however, is tell us how this issue is ultimately going to be decided. The paper essentially summarizes this process in one line, telling us that the FCC currently has no authority over cable, and that the Republican-controlled Congress “may not have the desire” to give it.

This raises more questions then it answers. Leaving aside our confusion over the meaning of “may not” (as in 50-50 chance, or what?), the summary judgment neither tells the full story, nor does justice to the complexities of Washington policy-making.

For starters, the paper didn’t quite capture the extent to which the FCC is serious about expanding its mandate. Martin’s testimony is described as a “suggestion” to the cable companies, but it would be more accurate to call it a “threat.” Consider his words, unquoted by the Journal:

“For the last three years, I have … been urging the cable and satellite industry to give parents more of the tools they need. Thus far, there has been too little response … If cable and satellite operators continue to refuse to offer parents more tools such as family-friendly programming packages, basic indecency and profanity restrictions may be a viable alternative that should also be considered.”

It is also important to note, as the Journal does only in passing, that Martin’s words represent a complete reversal of the FCC’s position of only a year ago. Why the change of heart? Is this merely a difference in opinion between Martin and his predecessor? Or is it evidence that social conservatives and lobbyists such as L. Brent Bozell’s Parents Television Council now have more sway than economic conservatives and the cable TV lobby?

If it’s the latter, could the social conservatives convince Congress to expand the FCC’s authority? And what are the cable moguls doing to prevent this from happening? Who are they meeting? Which lobbyists are on board? The Journal doesn’t mention that Tuesday’s hearing included testimony from Jack Valenti, the flamboyant and wildly influential lobbyist who used to run the Motion Picture Association. Valenti saved Hollywood from regulation by inventing the “G” to “X” movie rating system. Is he now working for the cable guys?

Answers to these questions would make for a better yarn. More importantly, a fuller picture would allow readers to fashion their own answer to the biggest question of all: Is cable going to be regulated?

If we don’t know what’s happening in DC, we can’t predict the future of a major industry. By the same token, of course, many political stories fail to outline the precise roll played by corporate maneuvering in Washington. Which raises another question: Do we need more business-savvy reporters in the nation’s capital?

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.