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Government comissions weigh media’s options

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From the Winter 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23. Amongst the news organizations, journalism schools…

From the Winter 2010 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23.

Amongst the news organizations, journalism schools and media foundations engaged in back-and-forth dialogue about how to save the news industry, two government bodies — the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission — have recently injected themselves squarely in the middle of the debate.

The FTC in December held a two-day conference on emerging business models that could help journalism survive in the Internet age. The FCC in January launched its Future of Media project that will prepare a report on how journalism can best thrive in the digital marketplace.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, aware of the concerns government involvement in the press might raise, was quick to point out that the commission developed the project at the media’s behest.

“We’re at a pivotal moment in the history of media and communications, because of game-changing new technologies as well as the economic downturn,” Genachowski said in a release when the project was announced in October. “Highly respected entities have called on the FCC to assess these issues . . . while recognizing the government must be scrupulous in abiding by the First Amendment and never dictating or controlling the content of the news.”

The call to action came last October in reports issued by the Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The Knight report asked the government to “direct media policy toward innovation, competition, and support for business models that provide marketplace incentives for quality journalism.” The Columbia report, authored by communications professor Michael Schudson and former executive editor of The Washington Post Leonard Downie, Jr., urged the FCC to divert money from its telephone surcharge, which generates $7 billion per year, to “finance a Fund for Local News that would make grants for advances in local news reporting and innovative ways to support it.”

Though the two reports invited the FCC to consider the issue, and despite repeated assurances that the project is aware of the concerns it raises, the initiative’s skeptics still wonder whether it’s the government’s job to take a look into the health and structure of journalism.

“I don’t understand exactly where the commission’s authority comes from to conduct this study,” said Jane Kirtley, University of Minnesota professor and former director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The whole basis of the First Amendment is that the government doesn’t have any business facilitating journalism. It should just stay out of it.”

The Future of Media project is still in its initial stages. On Jan. 21, the FCC issued a public notice that listed 42 initial questions it will consider as it prepares its report. It also advertised a new Web site where individuals and organizations can post feedback on the state of the media, discuss business and audience trends, and suggest prudent policy changes.

“I don’t doubt that this is done with the right motives, but I think it’s a dangerous road to go down for a number of reasons,” said W. Kenneth Ferree, a fellow at The Progress & Freedom Foundation and former head of the FCC’s Media Bureau from 2001 to 2005. “The single most important thing the press can do is operate as a check on the government, so intertwining its financial incentives with the government sends chills down my spine.”

Ferree pointed out there would be ethical problems implementing any policy directives the FCC recommends right from the beginning. Even defining who is a journalist or what qualifies as journalism, which would be necessary to be eligible for government subsidies or assistance, places the commission in a decision-making role that could redefine news coverage. Others point out that even if the FCC’s initiative is a good-faith effort to promote a healthy, free press, it is unclear whether its jurisdiction will allow them to do so.

“In their questions, they defiantly identify that they don’t want to tread on the First Amendment and they also recognize that the FCC has authority to regulate broadcast but not newspapers,” said Paul Boyle, senior vice president of public policy at the Newspaper Association of America.

Ferree said that the FCC’s best option to save journalism might be to relax its restrictions on media cross-ownership in local markets that prohibits one company from owning both a newspaper and broadcast station in the same news market. “A lot of those rules were created in a time when you really did worry about a lack of diversity, but it’s hard now, when there’s so many sources of news and information out there, to worry too much about the diversity angle,” he said.

That suggestion seems to have some support within the commission. When FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker gave a recent speech at The Media Institute, she joked it should be named “Baker Says the Government Should Stay Out of Journalism.” For-profit and nonprofit ventures should transform journalism, she said, and the FCC should get out of the way.

She later explained the best way to do that would be by relaxing cross-ownership rules during an upcoming review. “I hope we explore the economic realities of the media landscape today and the potential benefits of a converged newsroom if a company were able to own a newspaper and a TV station in the same city.”

Baker emphasized the risks of even innocuous government involvement. “I think it is dangerous for industries to start looking to answers from Washington to resolve the fundamental challenges to their business,” Baker said during her speech. “We must be wary of any attempts to let the government foxes into the henhouses of the press.”