Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps spoke to the faithful at a conference sponsored by Free Press, a Washington-based group that believes the government can create a better world by managing the media. Hah. “Regulate Press” would be a better name since that’s its real agenda. Here’s the Copps speach with my take on why he’s all wrong.
Last Wednesday, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps spoke to the faithful at a conference sponsored by Free Press, a Washington-based group that believes the government can create a better world by managing the media.
I wasn’t on hand for the speech, but I picked up a copy from the FCC Web site. What follows are excerpts along with my annotations (in bold face). Please be sure to append your own thoughts in the TVNewsCheck comment section at the bottom.
Every year there’s one speaking engagement I look forward to more than any other. Every year it’s the same one. It’s getting together with my friends at Free Press to talk about media reform. From here on out, I’m changing the name of Free Press to Regulate Press since that better reflects its mission.
Change has come to Washington, D.C. Reform breezes are blowing through the corridors of power all over this city. And if things go well, we may be launched on an era of reform to match what the Progressives and New Dealers of the last century gave us. Ah, those were the good old days. If only Henry Wallace had beaten Truman in ’48 …
But it’s no sure thing that it will end so well. Reform is never on auto-pilot, and in spite of all the marvels of 21st century technology, there is no GPS system that can deliver us to a new, progressive promised land. My friend, the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., believed that periods of reaction in America are succeeded — with a lot of blood, sweat, toil and tears-by waves of reform …. We must seize the opportunity when we have it. Us. Now. I wonder if it ever occurs to anybody in Washington that they don’t have to react or reform. There is a third choice, you know. Government can do nothing. That way the department and agencies could send armies of government policymakers and bureaucrats back out into the provinces where they could provide goods and services that would make America a better place. (It would kill property values inside and outside the Beltway, however.)
[W]ill “old media” stalwarts like newspapers and broadcasting simply disappear — or will they adapt and survive? How about journalism? Will anyone figure out a business model to support in-depth, investigative journalism — or must we develop something completely new, perhaps based on philanthropy, nonprofit models or public media? What about the core values of localism, diversity and competition that Regulate Press fights so valiantly for? Will anyone figure out a business model to support in-depth investigative journalism? Yes. In fact, Google already has. It just hasn’t decided it wants to offer investigative journalism. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day it does. Others will step up because there is a demand for it. I don’t understand Copps’ concerns about localism, diversity and competition. With the rise of the Internet, media has never been more local, diverse and competitive and it’s only likely to become more so.
Important questitions, all. But if we focus too much on the questions it can leave us paralyzed. Just ask Prince Hamlet. We need to act thoughtfully, yes; but we need to act — and I mean act while the tide runs in our direction. Shakespeare again — I think he said something about taking the tide at its flood or else being bound in shallows and misery. When it comes to public policy, eight years of shallows and misery was enough for me. I don’t even want to think about any more such years! Oh, please. The FCC of Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps was the most regulatory since the 1970s. If Copps considers the Martin years “shallows and misery,” broadcasters ought to tip their swords with poison and fall on them.
Good ideas are running on the present tide. … [P]ick up a copy of Regulate Press’ new book, Changing Media: Public Interest Policies for the Digital Age. I’ve already read, underlined and dog-eared it. You should, too. … Changing Media is an important contribution to our national dialogue. It tees up issues we all need to be talking about, and it is particularly relevant now as the FCC sets out to develop a congressionally-mandated broadband plan for America. Do I have to read this thing? I suppose so, otherwise I won’t know what broadcasters are up against. Given Regulate Press’ disregard for the First Amendment rights of broadcasters, I can’t imagine it contains anything that will do broadcasters any good.
A democracy runs on information. Information is how we make intelligent decisions about our future and how we hold the powerful accountable. … Indeed, if you look at the three core values of our media policy from time immemorial — localism, diversity and competition — they are really aimed at a single goal: to ensure that the American people have access to a wide range of information on issues of public concern. Our media policy? Copps apparently believes that broadcasting is solely a product of smart government policy, and if it weren’t for his heroes in the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, there would be no broadcast news or other public service. In what is widely considered the seminal moment for broadcasting, KDKA Pittsburgh aired the results of the Harding-Cox election on Nov. 2, 1920, not because the government told it it had to, but because it thought folks might be interested. Stations have been doing news for the same reason ever since.
Two decades of mindless deregulation — only briefly interrupted — topped off by a veritable tsunami of consolidation across not just communications, but most business sectors, have succeeded in bringing our economy low and endangering the essential civic dialogue on which democracy depends. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: we are skating perilously close to depriving our fellow citizens of the depth and breadth of information they need to make intelligent choices about their future. Really? Americans have more access to information about public issues than they have had in the entire history of the Republic. They don’t even need media in the sense of other people on TV or radio telling them what’s important and what to think about it. With the Internet, they can directly access speeches, testimony, legislation, rulemakings, Supreme Court opinions and countless other documents. They can even tune into FCC meetings. They really can become expert on any issue they want.
We’re not only losing journalists, we may be losing journalism. Some blame the Internet and bloggers, and that’s certainly a part of the story. But the problems started way before that. All that consolidation and mindless deregulation, rather than reviving the news business, condemned us to less real news, less serious political coverage, less diversity of opinion, less minority and female ownership, less investigative journalism and fewer jobs for journalists. You could also argue that consolidation and the resulting efficiencies are what have allowed TV stations to continue providing news and other public affairs programming despite relentless competition from cable and satellite over the past three decades. I agree that consolidation debt is now crushing some station groups, but only because they were caught short by the double whammy of recession and even more competition from the Internet. I know that this is anathema to Copps, but the answer to legacy media’s current troubles may be more consolidation. The newspapers that Copps now wants to save might be in better shape today if they had been allowed to merge with local broadcast stations. I wonder if it has ever occurred to Copps that the mindless regulation he and Regulate Press have espoused may have contributed to the premature demise of newspapers and the journalism they support.
Hyper-commercialism and high-quality news make uneasy bedfellows. As my hero FDR said in a letter to Joseph Pulitzer, “I have always been firmly persuaded that our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public from the counting room.” I agree with FDR, who is also one of my heroes. But it’s also true that neither newspapers nor broadcasting can be edited in the interests of the government. The more involved government becomes in media, the less able media is to provide the counterbalance to government.
The Fairness Doctrine is long gone and it’s not coming back-as much as some conspiracy theorists see it lurking behind every corner. … Resurrecting the straw man of a by-gone Fairness Doctrine to deflect this country’s belated passage to equal opportunity is a kind of issue-mongering that has no place in 21st century America. We will not lose this opportunity to make real and lasting progress on media reform because some find it is in their self-interest to keep this phony issue alive. I believe Copps. He and his pals on Capitol Hill would like to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, but they wouldn’t dare try. It would create such an S-storm on talk radio that the larger Obama agenda would suffer. Obama is a smart guy. He made clear early on that this was an issue to be avoided. Copps has gotten the message.
I’m not saying that old media won’t fade away, but we’re not there yet-and sometimes change takes longer to arrive than we think. We’ve been out helping consumers with the DTV transition-you’d be amazed at how many people are still happily watching TV on 30-year old sets and 20-year old VCRs. So, chairman, why are you determined to fix what ain’t broken? This is a neat rhetorical trick. After telling us how much trouble “old media” is in, Copps needs to restore broadcasting to health so he can justify his call for regulation (see below).
If old media is going to be with us a while still, what implications does this have for us? It means we still need to get serious about defining broadcasters’ public interest obligations and reinvigorating our license renewal process. Since we still need broadcasters to contribute to the democratic dialogue, we need clear standards that can be fairly but vigorously enforced. It is time to say “good-bye” to postcard renewal every eight years and “hello” to license renewals every three years with some public interest teeth. Of all the bad ideas that Copps has advanced during his too-long FCC tenure, this may be the worst. Reverting to a three-year license with new “public interest” obligations would burden stations with pointless regulatory chores and obligations when they can least afford them. And they will fail to produce the kinds of programming that Copps says he wants. You cannot force good journalism or good public affairs programming, only the pretense of it.
I understand that many thoughtful people are ready to give up on the public interest. They would rather just impose a spectrum fee on broadcasters and be done with it. I’ve got a better idea: Let’s get rid of the public interest standard and not impose a spectrum fee.
You know me as someone who has supported and pushed the cause of Internet Freedom, Internet Openness, Net Neutrality, whatever you want to call it, for a long, long time. While the tide runs we need to assure this, and, for openers, I will be working for a Fifth Principle of Non-discrimination to be one of the first fruits of our reconstituted FCC. Hey, I agree with Copps and Regulate Press on this one. Government shouldn’t allow telecommunications companies to discriminate against content providers on rates or services. This common carrier principle goes back to the Cleveland administration, which, I guess, is part of the appeal for Copps. By keeping content flowing freely on the Internet, government insures that old media will have plenty of competition and that there will be plenty for the citizenry to chew on. There won’t be any need for regulating old media.
[R]egulation isn’t always the answer. We’ll need ways to address market failures in different ways. For example, should we find a way adequately to fund PBS or some other group that is actually interested in doing the job? Maybe PBSS — a Public Broadcasting System on Steroids. That can’t be done on the cheap, and we’ll hear laments that there’s not a lot of extra cash floating around these days. Great idea. We’ll create a great, big government agency and put it in charge of investigative reporting. It’ll keep an eye on government just as the SEC has kept an eye on Wall Street. Copps seems to think that Obama will always be president. He ought to consider how much he’ll like or trust what the PBSS is reporting when the likes of Dick Cheney return to power.
Remember what got us here. A lot of organizing. Grassroots work everywhere. Town hall meetings, media reform conferences, teach-ins, marches. Don’t anyone think: “We won, it’s over, now let’s just go harvest the fruit.” Change has come to Washington, but Washington has not been conquered. The tools that got you this far are still the tools to turn promise into reality. Right on. Let’s march on the FCC and shut it down.
Thank you for listening, and thank you for everything you do for America. Copps ought to go on a tour of TV stations that air news and thank them for everything they do for America. Each and every one of them has done more than Regulate Press.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at [email protected]