With both the FCC and Federal Trade Commission set to study media consolidation and the troubled journalism business, broadcasters need to present a clear and cogent case for deregulation. They can argue that consolidation can actually be good for journalism and stations would be healthier if granted some antitrust relief.
As former FCC Commissioner James Quello would say prior to particularly sticky votes: “This is a tough putt.”
Should broadcast journalists get involved with the government’s apparently well-meaning efforts to save journalism?
Right now, the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission are exploring what they might do to insure that the economic troubles of TV stations and newspapers don’t lead to the demise of the first-rate journalism they produce.
Michael Copps got things rolling at the FCC a few months ago when he was interim chairman. He proposed a proceeding to examine the implications of greater media consolidation and, possibly, of antitrust exemptions so that competitive media could work together and operate more efficiently.
Copps’ successor, Julius Genachowski, made clear in an interview with me that he shares Copps’ concerns and will follow through on the initiative, although he couldn’t say how or when. “I don’t think you can look at what’s going on in the marketplace and not be concerned,” he says. “We have got to make sure that we preserve news gathering abilities, particularly for local news and information.”
The Federal Trade Commission, meanwhile, has scheduled two days of workshops (Dec. 1-2) to address journalism’s troubles: “From Town Criers to Bloggers: How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age.”
Besides reviewing all that’s going on out there in the mediascape, the workshops will consider government policies — antitrust, copyright, tax — and how they could be reshaped to reinvigorate journalism.
It’s intriguing, although I remain pessimistic about the long-term prospects for town criers.
Although they may not admit it, the FCC and FTC efforts may spring from the guilt liberal Democrats must feel for perpetuating ownership restrictions that have hobbled newspapers and broadcasters in their ability to respond to marketplace pressures. The Dems might feel kind of stupid, too, if the newspaper-broadcast crossownership ban outlives newspapers.
Let’s go back now and line up that putt.
On the one hand, it may be a good idea for broadcasters to participate in the FTC and FCC proceedings. It’s a perfect opportunity for them to make the case that consolidation isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to journalism, and that outdated ownership restrictions must go.
In fact, and somewhat paradoxically, they can argue that consolidation is good for journalism. Newspapers have done their best journalistic work since becoming monopolies or near monopolies.
Flush owners are willing to trade dollars for the power and prestige that comes from operating first-rate journalistic enterprises. Pick up a copy of the New York Times or the Washington Post to see what I mean.
What’s wrecking such papers is the uncontrollable invasion of competition from the Internet. They’ve lost their local news and classified advertising franchises and they can’t get them back.
By contrast, excessive competition seems to bring out the worse in journalism. In broadcasting, it leads to rundowns filled with the lowest-common-denominator reporting on crimes and fires. In cable, among the news networks, it has produced a mad race to the bottom in search of the most viewers.
Broadcasters could also argue for some antitrust. It would be great if TV stations could jointly sell advertising or share technical operations without fear of retribution by the FTC or the DOJ. Stations in a market should also be able to negotiate jointly with cable for retransmission consent fees. You sure can’t do that under current law.
On the other hand, the proceedings could be a trap. Whatever benefits the government grants the legacy media are likely to come with strings. For every break the FCC grants TV stations it will want something in return. OK, you can own two stations in the 100-plus markets, it’ll say, but you’ll have to adhere to strict local or children’s programming quotas under the threat of loss of license.
A larger principle is at stake here too. Journalistic organizations simply shouldn’t be involved in what will surely lead to some quid pro quo or put them on an economic footing that depends on the continued beneficence of the government.
And they certainly don’t want to be in the debt of government officials. Remember Don Corleone’s admonition to the undertaker: “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.”
The most important thing that journalists have is their independence.
Newspapers get this. Broadcasters do too, perhaps even more clearly, since they have never been fully independent. They have had to put up with Congress and the FCC meddling in their editorial affairs for the better part of nine decades. The government got its hooks into broadcasting in the early days and never let go.
Part of me would like to see the broadcasters refuse to participate in the FTC and FCC proceedings. By doing so, they would be declaring that they no longer want to continue their involuntary partnership with the government.
But such refusal would probably be foolish. All of broadcasting’s critics will be taking part, and they will be arguing that the way to cure what ails broadcast journalism is even stiffer doses of government regulation. Broadcasters need to counter that.
And, as I said above, broadcasters will be able to present a clear and cogent case for deregulation — structural and content.
But, in so doing, broadcasters must resist the temptation to enter into any deals in which they trade away any more of their editorial freedom for economic gain.
Whatever rights they can’t get from the FTC or FCC or Congress, they may yet be able to get in court. No strings attached.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]