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Commissioner Copps: Is The Public Interest Bargain Dying?

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Released: June 15, 2011

COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS

REMARKS AT NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION

A CONVERSATION ON THE FUTURE OF THE MEDIA:

IS THE PUBLIC INTEREST BARGAIN DYING?

JUNE 15, 2011

Thank you--it's always refreshing and even fun to come over to this ever-flowing
fount of new ideas and it's a very special honor to be in the company of two such
distinguished masters of the journalistic arts as Steve Coll and Ted Koppel. The best part
of the job I've had for the past ten years is getting to know folks like you two--not that
there are any folks really "like" you two--who know their way around journalism and
whose love and pride for it is so passionate. Thank you for convening this session today.
The catalyst for this event is the Staff Report and accompanying
recommendations issued by the FCC last week, most recently entitled "The Information
Needs of Communities." It was a long time coming and expectations were high. If the
intent of the Staff Report was to provide an in-depth snapshot of the media landscape,
then it was mostly a success. But the snapshot clearly revealed cracks and chasms
running through the landscape by documenting, in particular, shortfalls in the production
of local accountability journalism. I am not here to quibble with many of the Report's
findings, although I do wish it had focused a little attention on what proactively reform-
minded FCCs, like the ones we had back in the 1940s, can do when they put their
minds--and a majority vote--to it. The big question coming out of this expansive
Report is: what do we do about it? And it is here that I find myself not just
underwhelmed but sorely disappointed by the timidity of the recommendations, given the
breadth of the immediate problems the Report itself tees up. Some have made the point
in the last week that this is a politically charged environment with an election coming and
it would be best to move gingerly and speak softly around such topics. As both historian
and long-time public servant, I hearken back to a different approach, founded in the belief
that educating and informing our citizens is the surest pathway to preserving and
extending our democratic experiment.
There are two schools of thought on what role government should play in
providing the infrastructure to inform our citizens. One school would say let's leave this
important task up to the free market and deregulate the entities that serve this purpose.
This school has been in charge of the classroom for most of the past 30 years. We have
been through an ongoing orgy of private sector consolidation with a few mega-media
companies buying up small, independent broadcast stations and newspapers and then
downsizing--and often shuttering--newsrooms and firing journalists in order to pay the
huge debts these merger transactions always entail. The private sector found a willing
accomplice in an FCC that was only too happy to bless it all and encourage even more,
almost never saying "No" to whatever merger the financial wizards could conjure up. To
make things even worse, successive iterations of FCCs vanquished from the books most
of the public interest rules and guidelines that could have imposed some discipline on
broadcasting run rampant.

Additionally, and not to be deflected by a third-rail issue, the advocates of the
hands-off approach begin and end their argument with the First Amendment which,
according to them, grants a monopoly privilege to those who can afford to make use of
the airwaves. Once upon a time long ago, I taught the history of the First Amendment
and it turns out it's a little more complex than those who believe its mere mention must
silence all debate. I find it instructive that our Founding Fathers, who wrote the
Amendment
, went on in very short order to build post roads and subsidize the delivery of
newspapers on the clearly-stated premise that their fledgling experiment in self-
government depended rather significantly upon a well-informed citizenry that could cast
its votes based on the best facts available. They saw this as perfectly legitimate public
policy. To repeat, these were the same Founders who gave us the First Amendment in
the first place. Maybe those whose sole recourse is to shout "First Amendment" to shut
off all discussion should study their Washington, Madison and Jefferson a little more
thoroughly. By the way, it was a continuation of this same theory that led government in
the century just past to license the airwaves to those who pledged to serve the public
interest. And it is the same theory that is to this day still regnant Supreme Court doctrine:
"It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas
in which truth will ultimately prevail." We could argue this all day and that's not the
purpose of this session, but neither do advocates of media reform need to cower in the
corner when the Do-Nothings try to shout us down.
The second school maintains that there is a role for government in general and the
Federal Communications Commission in particular: that role is to ensure that the public's
spectrum is put to the public purpose of informing democracy's dialogue. Under this
theory, a license to broadcast is a privilege, not a God-given right, and the privilege of
keeping that license depends upon the caliber of trusteeship a station delivers.
Let's tackle the facts. Right now, and it's no surprise to this group I'm sure,
somewhere around 90%-plus of the news and information journalism Americans rely on
originates in traditional journalism--newspapers and broadcasting. There may be lots of
channels and avenues out there to distribute what is produced, but what is produced is
much less than it used to be. Everywhere around us are telling signs that the news and
information journalism we relied on for so long is failing us today. Perhaps a quarter of
the journalistic work force is walking the street in search of a job rather than working the
beat in search of a story. Investigative journalism is an endangered species. In a society
where watchdog journalism is absolutely essential, more than two dozen states don't have
a single reporter accredited to Capitol Hill. How's that for holding the powerful
accountable? At the state level, legions of lobbyists outnumber professional journalists
by orders of magnitude. And, Steve Waldman's Report tells us, more than one-third of
our commercial broadcasters offer little to no news to their communities of license. As
America's news and information sources keep shrinking, hundreds of stories that could
inform our citizens go untold, indeed undiscovered.
"Ah, but wait," some say, "all this is talk of yesteryear. The Digital Age is here,
everything has changed, and a little patience will inevitably be rewarded with new and
better media." I yield to no one in believing that the Digital Age holds amazing promise
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for expanding the scope of our democratic discourse. The Staff Report recognizes this
and the present Commission has focused tremendous and commendable energy on both
broadband deployment and adoption. But let's recognize up-front that building a new
town-square paved with broadband bricks and stacked with good news and information is
not going to happen on auto-pilot. Don't fall for that one. If all goes well, the Internet
will one day open wide avenues to enhance the in-depth journalism the country needs. If
all goes well, we will find platforms where diverse voices don't just talk, but where they
actually have a shot at being heard. There is a lot of commendable experimentation
going on to devise innovative models for Internet journalism. I hope these experiments
propagate and multiply. As of June 15, 2011, however, what we have gained in support
for news and journalism on the Internet does not match what we have lost in the
traditional practice of those crafts. Simply put, the Internet cannot fulfill its democratic
potential without sustainable journalism.
Today the first five studies examining the FCC's rules for the Congressionally-
mandated Quadrennial Review were released. One of the studies entitled "Less of the
Same: The Lack of Local News on the Internet" was written by Matthew Hindman,
author of the book "The Myth of Digital Democracy." If you haven't read it, you should.
The study underscores a point illustrated in Steve Waldman's Staff Report: that news
online has not yet plugged the gaps left behind by the erosion of traditional journalism.
Consider this: Only 16 of the top 100 markets have an unaffiliated Internet news source
that reaches even a one-percent audience threshold. Yes, I said one per cent! Or this:
Local news online is less than one-half of one per cent of page views. Hindman's
conclusion appears to be that there are far too few online news sites at this point to say
they have added much to media diversity.
There is data showing that minorities are adopting wireless broadband at a quicker
pace than their counterparts, but is there content geared toward these audiences? The
Hindman study shows that markets that have either heavily African-American or
Hispanic populations have fewer Internet-only news sites. If the majority of hyperlocal
sites are taking hold in affluent areas that can support advertising, have we really dealt
with diversity and competition concerns--or have we just moved media injustice onto a
new field?
There are many other questions. Here is one: are we leaving behind the
gatekeepers of the past only to recreate them anew online? We can't just put our fate in
the hands of new technology and trust that all will be well. Technology can do good
things--and not-so-good. It depends upon how it is used and how it is guided. In his
remarkable book The Master Switch, Tim Wu makes the telling point that the technical
properties of a communications system have less to do with determining freedom of
expression than does the industry structure surrounding it. And if the industry structure
that wreaked so much havoc on our traditional media is now migrating to new media--
and there are signs that it is--think about how woefully that undermines the opportunity-
creating dynamism of the Internet to nourish our small "d" democratic dialogue.
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As you will have concluded by now, I don't believe the FCC's just-released Staff
Report, for all its many merits of analysis and some good suggestions, too, responds to
the urgency of the crisis. Too often, the recommendations don't track the analysis. I
believe that many Americans are ready for a bolder approach. People want action. They
get more and more consolidation. People want action. They witness instead the
weakening little-by-little of the rules meant to serve the public interest. People want
action. But what has been said through these cautious recommendations is that the same
media market that has turned news into infotainment, closed bureaus for a bigger
dividend check, canned journalists for bigger CEO salaries and given up on doing real
news--that media market is mostly vibrant and there is no overall crisis in news or
information.
So instead of bold Commission action, the Staff Report tinkers around the edges
by urging philanthropies to mend their ways and do a better job of supporting media
innovation; by asking Congress to pass new tax incentives; and by suggesting the federal
government distribute more of its advertising through local media. Good ideas all--but
not on the same level as the threat. The Harry Truman poster on my office wall says
"The buck stops here." The FCC has passed the buck for too long.
For itself, the Commission relies almost exclusively on online disclosure as the
remedy for our media ills. I'm all for disclosure and, in fact, voted for the Enhanced
Disclosure proceeding that was approved by the Commission back in 2007 and has since
been hung up in some strange never-never land between the Commission and the Office
of Management and Budget. Let's free it, fine-tune it, implement it and get on with the
job, I say. But the recommendation seems to be to start over, cut significantly down on
the information that would go online, use information from just a sample week rather
than over the course of time, and then wait for this "transparency" to cure all ills. For
those who have been toiling away for decades working to make the media more reflective
of this diverse country there is little consolation in more transparency absent some
increased leverage so they have a shot at succeeding with an actual complaint.
Let's keep in mind that disclosure is a means to an end--not an end in itself. If
disclosure brings to public light actions that require redress, where is the redress to be
found? Some will doubt whether it is to be found in a Commission that has for most of
30 years sworn off public interest rules and guidelines and now seems ready to declare
the whole idea a relic of history. Why would consumers even bother to plumb the
Internet looking at public files if there is so little confidence their effort will be rewarded
with remedial action? Over the years some hearty souls have gone through the paper
files, amassed their evidence, and petitioned the Commission to deny relicensing, all to
no effect. What is the benefit of moving that hapless process online?
Instead of playing taps for public interest obligations policy, the Commission
would be better advised to give it a try. We shouldn't thrust aside that which has seldom
had an occasion to be implemented. Why dismiss, for just one example, a real re-
licensing process as a failure when we haven't even attempted to use it for more than a
generation? When we had public interest guidelines on the books, they did encourage
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broadcaster restraint and they did encourage more real news and information. I've talked
to a lot of the old hands who were practicing broadcast journalists during and right after
the great Ed Murrow generation, and just about unanimously they cite the statute and the
potential for the FCC to take action as encouraging resource-intensive journalism. That
was before the days of newsroom operations being seen as profit centers. The Staff
Report itself reminds us that Bill Paley told his news operation that he had Jack Benny to
make money so they should go out and gather news and not worry about where the funds
were coming from--he would take care of that.
I have no illusion that the FCC can magically take us back to that approach, but I
also have no doubt that we could stop the slide and travel some ways back toward news
for the sake of news by implementing our statutory mandate to maintain a serious
licensing and re-licensing process. There are other suggestions, I know, like imposing
spectrum fees on broadcasters and giving the money to non-commercial media. I don't
oppose that approach, although I like my idea better. But in any event, 40 years in this
town tell me it would have been more practical to secure three votes at the Commission
to exercise current authority than it is to wait for Congress to give the FCC additional
authority in this precarious environment.
I am not here to suggest there is any silver bullet for the multi-pronged
information infrastructure challenges that confront our country. But those who have a
role to play should play it. FCC Public Interest oversight can affect broadcasting--from
whence so much of our news comes--and even have some spill-over effects on some of
the newspapers that are cross-owned. (Maybe there can be silver linings behind dark
clouds!) The Commission should move quickly to complete--not cancel--its evidence-
heavy Localism proceeding, finalize the Disclosure item, and implement many of the
diversity proposals suggested to us by our own Diversity Advisory Committee over the
past several years. The FCC should also hold full Commission hearings around the
country--I suggested a minimum of three in the next three months to our Chairman--to
hear directly from the American people what they think about the news and information
they are receiving. This would also help jump-start a national dialogue on the future of
our media. It's a discussion that I believe, based on my conversations with tens of
thousand of citizens, the American people are willing, and indeed are eager, to hold.
Remember back in 2003, when a previous Commission moved to gut our media
ownership rules and some were saying no one out there really cared and three million
people wrote in opposing the action? Those rules were put on hold. Who says citizen
action can't work, even in these times when so few interests wield such outrageous
power? Going beyond the FCC, the Administration could put together both inter-agency
and public-private sector partnerships to discuss and develop creative ideas for our news
and information needs. These are issues, after all, that were discussed in the last election.
We need to feel the urgency. Knowing that our news and information system is
not, right now, supplying the depth and breadth of information a functioning democracy
requires for informed decision-making, we must push hard for action. We need to be
really engaged on this. If the sound of the trumpet be uncertain, who will respond to the
call to battle, the Bible enjoins us. This is no time to be timid. There is no need to be
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deflected or defensive or scared off by those whose vested interests, economic and
political, argue against any and all public interest oversight.
This country confronts huge challenges, towering uncertainty about the revival of
our economy, where new jobs will come from, how will we prosper in a hyper-
competitive global arena, how to support the education our kids and grandkids need to
thrive in these difficult times, how to open the doors of opportunity to so many
Americans who have been left behind. We have so much to do to preserve our strength,
our prosperity, our land of opportunity. But if we don't have the information and the
news about what's going on in the neighborhood and the town and the nation and the
world around us, our decisions will suffer and our future won't match our past, let alone
improve upon it. We'll put ourselves, as individuals and families and a nation, on
history's sidelines.
That is what is at stake here. That is why I feel so strongly about these issues.
And that is why I intend to keep pushing, pushing, pushing in the months and, if need be,
the years, ahead. Let's work together to keep the public interest bargain alive.
Thank you.
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