Monday, February 08, 2010

Of Transformational Moments and Media Regulation

There is an interesting piece on the Broadcasting & Cable website in which John Eggerton, B&C's longtime, highly knowledgeable media reporter, interviews Steven Waldman, senior advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. The interview gives me pause – and it may give you pause as well.

In the setup for the interview, which you should read in its entirety, B&C states: "Waldman is charged with coming up with a report to the commission on the state and fate of the media in the midst of radical change." In the interview, Waldman is careful to say that, with the project he leads, the FCC is not looking to save any particular company or industry because "that is not really our job." But what exactly is the job that the FCC is looking to do under Waldman's charge? Mr. Waldman says: "We are looking at it in terms of preserving certain functions, in which I do include accountability journalism."

Here's the rub. It is not really the FCC's job – or generally within its delegated jurisdiction – to preserve "accountability journalism," or even to define it. Indeed, despite Waldman's appropriate nods to First Amendment sensitivities, free speech concerns are necessarily implicated when the government categorizes different kinds of media content and worries about preserving some content and not other.

I prefer to assume the good intentions of Chairman Genachowski and Mr. Waldman, and others, when they bemoan what they perceive as the troubled state of the news media and when they pledge to focus government's efforts on what Mr. Waldman calls "the information needs of the community." But the truth of the matter, if we are to be candid, is that many of those in the "fix the media" camp just don't like particular programs, or networks, or what they might call the slants of particular media outlets. They often rail against the "24-hour cable news networks," and especially against one particular cable news network they say is not as "fair and balanced" as it advertises.

Perhaps what many of the "accountability journalism" proponents really long for are the days when television news was dominated by three major network news operations with a generally liberal tilt. When Walter Cronkite closed each evening's broadcast with the soothing, "And that's the way it is." Except when it wasn't. And recall the occasions when Cronkite's successor, Dan Rather, told us the way it was, but it wasn't. We only found out because of the bloggers, certain 24-hour cable news networks, and other non-mainstream media. Accountability journalism in action, perhaps – without government help.

Now here are some of Mr. Waldman's specific responses that particularly give me pause.

He says: "But the one premise is that the chairman and I believe we are at a transformational moment. The first thing we have to do is make sure the FCC meets that moment in a smart way." When government officials speak of "transformational moments" as justification for embarking on new missions, caution is in order. The Obama Administration, especially, has been keen to invoke transformational moments, for example, as justification for radical changes in health care and energy policy. The result, in my view, has been overreaching. I worry that invocation of the "transformational moment" could lead to overreaching as well with respect to media policy.

Mr. Waldman says: "Everything the FCC does affects the structure and organization of the media, and those often have very profound effects. Traditionally there has been a line between structural rules and ownership and micromanaging content, and I think that is a reasonable line in the sand." In one (theoretical) sense, this statement about a reasonable line in the sand is reasonable enough. But in another more practical sense it is not.

First, for many years (decades really), with Commissioner Copps and similar-minded commissioners leading the charge, the FCC has stood in the way of reforms that might have prevented or slowed the demise of journalistic endeavors whose demise they now purport to decry. I refer, of course, to their reflexive opposition to any relaxation of media ownership regulations, say, for example, that would have allowed combinations of local newspapers and broadcast outlets. Such combinations might have provided the necessary financial and other resources for supporting more of the "accountability journalism" that now is of such professed concern to these media regulators. I am confident that if you ask Commissioner Copps, he will tell you he has never been so concerned about "media concentration" as he is today. Not even when three television networks dominated the 30 minute nightly news shows, before the availability of new over-the-air networks, a multitude of cable networks, satellite radio outlets, the Internet, and so forth.

Second, while Mr. Waldman expressly eschews micro-managing content, I worry about the FCC macro-managing content. The line between micro and macro-managing content is not that clear. The natural inclination of government officials is the all-too-human tendency to want to enhance control of the media control in the interest of self-promotion or self-protection. This is why we have a First Amendment, by the way.

In this regard, in the context of the net neutrality debate, it has been shocking, if not surprising, to hear high government officials with responsibilities in the area of communications regulation, such as Andrew McLaughlin, a former top Google policy executive, speak as if they do not understand the difference between government censorship and private party choice as to what to information to convey or not.

Towards the end of the interview, Mr. Eggerton asks: "Can we establish that this initiative will not be a stealth takeover of the media by the government?"

Mr. Waldman responds: "Yes, we can absolutely, definitively say that we have no plans to take over the media, and we have no plans to reinstitute the fairness doctrine while I am at it."

I do not doubt that Mr. Waldman or Mr. Genachowski have no plans for the FCC "to take over the media." Or even to reinstitute the fairness doctrine, as least in the same form we knew it back when. Nevertheless, despite my presumption of their good intentions, I do doubt the wisdom of the FCC's endeavor to preserve and promote certain media functions, including "accountability journalism" and what is now fashionably called the "public media."

It is true that in order for our democracy to function well, we need a vigorous press with sufficient resources to investigate and shine a light on wrongdoing, especially government wrongdoing. So, yes, "accountability journalism" is desirable. But above all we need an independent press.

I am certain that our Founders – who gave us not only a real transformational moment but our First Amendment – would find it somewhat odd if we gave the government more power to regulate or interfere with the media, or to support "public media" with special preferences or subsidies, in order to promote government accountability. The Founders would understand the ultimate threat to democracy inherent in such a project.

I am sure they would prefer that those in positions of power in government, such as FCC commissioners, eliminate or reduce media regulations that constrain the actions and decisions of private media outlets, rather than using presumed transformational moments to enhance government involvement in, or control over, the media.