Sunday, April 04, 2010

Wisdom and Knowledge – Who's To Judge?

The FCC's "Future of Media" project is, by its own terms, so ambitious in scope that it is difficult to say much about it in a short piece for fear of being accused of leaving much unsaid. Nevertheless, this will be a short piece.

Underpinning the initiation of this project is the notion, despite the abundance of today's various media outlets, including the Internet, that the information needs of the American people are not being met satisfactorily. To remedy this claimed "market failure" or "information deficit," the theory goes, the government needs to support so-called "public media" in a variety of ways.

You might think that in an age of media abundance the justification for government support of, and involvement with, the media would be reduced, not heightened. Certainly, this view would be more consistent with my understanding of First Amendment sensitivities. But, rather perversely, media abundance is viewed by some as a rationale justifying more government support and direction of public media.

In preparation for the Free State Foundation's April 16 seminar on the "Future of Media" project, I just reviewed the comments filed by Ellen Goodman (with Anne Chen) in the FCC's National Broadband Plan proceeding. They are relevant because Ellen, whom I consider a friend and whom I respect, is now working on the FCC's "Future of Media" project as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar. (I was pleased that Ellen spoke about the role of public media on a panel at FSF's February 2009 Winter Telecom Policy Conference.)

Ellen's FCC comments in the broadband proceeding contain these statements:

"The mission of public media – to engage publics with information relevant to improving lives in particular communities and shared polities – is of growing importance in a world where information is abundant, but does not always reach the people who need it, and where wisdom and knowledge remain hard won."

"Public media should create content where there are market failures in accordance with a public service objective." (Emphasis in original).

"As the amount of media content proliferates, trusted public media entities have an important role to play as information curators. They can use their brand, community connections, technology, and editorial capacities to raise the profile of important, reliable, and innovative content." (Emphasis in original.)

"[T]o curate content, serving as both a filter to reduce information overload and a megaphone to give voice to the unheard."( This is described as one of the core functions of the digital public media.)

Again, what is striking to me is the recognition of – indeed, reliance upon – today's media abundance and media content proliferation as a justification for suggesting more government involvement with the media. When I first became involved in communications law and policy in the 1970s, the Supreme Court's affirmance in Red Lion of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine was still relatively fresh. Then it was supposed scarcity, not abundance, that sanctioned government involvement in shaping media content. Some things don't change; they just get turned upside down.

The problem, of course, is that making determinations concerning whether there are, as apparently alleged, information deficits in an age of media abundance necessarily involves judgments about media content. How else to determine whether such a deficit exists? And how to define a "public service objective"? Certainly each person's answer involves judgments about content? I might have very different views than Ellen concerning what constitutes a "public service" objective. For example, as a public service objective, Ellen might wish, say, to have more coverage of Tea Party events based on the notion the Tea Partiers have been under-covered, and I might disagree. Or vice versa.

The idea that, in connection with performing the curator function, the public media should serve both as a "filter" for weeding out some content and a "megaphone" for amplifying other content is troubling. And it strikes me as discordant for those advocating rigid notions of net neutrality that would prohibit any content discrimination to, at the same time, support an outright filtering role for government-supported media.

Or, to take just one more example, what does Ellen mean when she asserts that, even in a world of media abundance, "wisdom and knowledge remain hard won." I am not sure. But I suspect I might not agree with Ellen, or the first ten people I happen upon on Pennsylvania Avenue, concerning what constitutes "wisdom and knowledge." In any event, consistent with my view of the First Amendment, I am wary of government-supported media deciding what constitutes wisdom and knowledge, or deciding whether it has been won or lost.

You get the drift.

If these questions interest you – and I bet they do – I hope you will attend the Free State Foundation's "Future of Media" lunch seminar on April 16 at the National Press Club. We are fortunate to have Steven Waldman, the FCC's "Future of Media" project leader, as the lead-off speaker to explain what the FCC is doing – and why. Then three stellar panelists – former CPB Vice-President for Legal Affairs Donna Gregg, Wall Street Journal editor James Taranto, and former FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate – will offer their own perspectives.

For information on the program and the speakers, click here. To attend, RSVP to FSF Events Coordinator Susan Reichbart here.