Initial Thoughts on the FCC “Future of Media” Report

by on June 9, 2011 · 7 comments

This morning, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its eagerly-awaited “Future of Media” report. The 475-page final report is entitled, “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.”  [Here's a 2-page summary and the official press release.]  The report is a bit overdue; the effort was supposed to be wrapped up late last year. Comments in the proceeding were filed over a year ago. Here are some of the major ones. Also, here is the 80-page monster filing that I submitted with my former PFF colleagues Berin Szoka and Ken Ferree.

Quick refresher… Federal policymakers have been taking a greater interest in the health of media and journalism in recent years. In 2009, the Senate held hearings about “the future of journalism,” and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) introduced the “Newspaper Revitalization Act,” which would allow newspapers to become tax-exempt non-profits in an effort to help them stay afloat. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission hosted two workshops asking “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” and also released a staff report on “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.” (As I noted here and here, the FTC was blasted for that report and quickly backed off the issue. The agency has since gone radio silent on the issue.) The FCC also launched its “Examination of the Future of Media and Information in a Digital Age” in 2010, and today’s report wraps up their work on this front.

My first reaction after scanning the FCC’s final report is one of relief. For those of us who care about the First Amendment, media freedom, and free-market experimentation with new media business models, it feels like we’ve dodged a major bullet. The report does not recommend sweeping regulatory actions that might have seen Washington inserting itself into the affairs of the press or bailing out dying business models.

By contrast, when the FCC and FTC started their respective proceedings, things looked very grim from a policy perspective. The discussion was being completely dominated by groups like Free Press and their founders, the neo-Marxist media scholar Robert W. McChesney and Nation editor John Nichols.  Here are some old essays and papers that summarize the radical “media reform” agenda they set forth over the past few years:

To the FCC’s great credit, the agency’s final report didn’t fall for most of these gimmicks or those radical calls for state intervention. The report’s recommendations are actually quite limited in scope and relatively innocuous in nature (although some of them are extremely amorphous and could be open to expansionist interpretations later on). Here are the major recommendations:

  • Accelerate move from paper to online disclosure. Disclosure information required by the FCC should be moved online from filing cabinets to the Internet so the public can more easily gain access to valuable information.  FCC should eliminate burdensome rules and streamline disclosures about local programming by moving files online.
  • Remove barriers to innovation and online entrepreneurship by pushing for universal broadband deployment and adoption.  Achieving this goal would remove cost barriers,strengthen online business models, expand consumer pools and ensure that the news and information landscape serves communities to the maximum possible benefit of citizens.
  • Target existing federal spending at local media.  Existing government advertising spending, such military recruiting and public health ads, should be targeted toward local media whenever possible. Each year, the federal government spends roughly $1 billion in advertising without maximizing potential benefits to local media.
  • Repeal Fairness Doctrine, terminate localism proceeding and replace “enhanced disclosure” with a new streamlined system of online disclosure. Broadcasters would disclose amount of programming about the community and other important information.
  • Discourage “pay-for-play” arrangements – in which TV stations allow advertisers to dictate on-air content without disclosing to viewers – by requiring online disclosure of such arrangements.
  • Re-assess whether the satellite TV’s set-aside for educational programming and cable TV leased access systems are working; put satellite disclosure online.
  • There should be state-based C-SPAN in every state. Cable and satellite operators, public broadcasters and PEG channels should work toward that goal, and policymakers should consider offering incentives for those media organizations that take such steps, or to those that provide support for local cable news operations.
  • Re-establish tax certificate program for small businesses including minorities and women.
  • Policymakers should consider clarifications or changes in tax rules that would make it easier for nonprofit news operations to develop sustainable business models.
  • Focus on historically underserved when policymakers craft strategies and rules.

While I can’t endorse all of these recommendations — especially those that involve more spending or tax code tinkering — I think most of these policy proposals are relatively unobjectionable. Again, this is pretty far removed from the radical Free Press / McChesney agenda that guided the Federal Trade Commission’s controversial report.  I will likely have more to say about the FCC’s specific policy recommendations after getting through the entire 475-page report this weekend.

Even without having finished the entire report, I feel comfortable saying this: The FCC’s “Information Needs of Communities” report is an impressive achievement and will be used as a reference document for decades to come.  The report offers an excellent overview of the state of the media marketplace and provides a relatively balanced assessment of both the good and bad trends shaping media and journalism today.

I congratulate Steve Waldman and the entire team experts that the FCC brought together to compile this report. But most of all I am relieved to see that the agency generally restrained itself here and avoided going down the dangerous path I once feared it might.

Finally, I am just a happy camper any day I see the Federal Communications Commission send out a Tweet like this:

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