Copps on Information Needs Of Communities Report
STATEMENT OF COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS
ON RELEASE OF FCC STAFF REPORT"THE TECHNOLOGY AND INFORMATION NEEDS
JUNE 9, 2011
STATEMENT OF COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS
ON RELEASE OF FCC STAFF REPORT"THE TECHNOLOGY AND INFORMATION NEEDS
JUNE 9, 2011Let's begin with a basic truth: the future of our country's media is an issue that
goes to the heart of our democracy. A well-informed electorate is the premise and
prerequisite of functioning self-government. To make this compact work, it is imperative
that the FCC play a vital role in helping to ensure that all Americans have access to
diverse and competing news and information that provide the grist for democracy's
churning mill. But for most of the past 30 years, the Commission has turned a blind, and
sometimes hostile, eye toward this responsibility. Abdication is no longer an option.
It will come as a surprise to few here this morning that this just-released Staff
Report and its accompanying recommendations are not the bold response for which I
hoped and dared to dream. Instead, the overarching conclusion of the Staff Report seems
to be that America's media landscape is mostly vibrant and there is no overall crisis of
news or information. But there is a crisis when, as this Report tells us, more than one-
third of our commercial broadcasters offer little to no news whatsoever to their
communities of license. America's news and information resources keep shrinking and
hundreds of stories that could inform our citizens go untold and, indeed, undiscovered.
Where is the vibrancy when hundreds of newsrooms have been decimated and tens of
thousands of reporters are walking the street in search of a job instead of working the beat
in search of a story?
Enlightened policy that promotes the public interest is basically glossed over by
the Staff Report as having been tried and failed. Let's look, for example, at the claim that
policies like broadcast relicensing have failed and therefore need to be replaced with
something new--or perhaps by nothing. I agree that our current licensing process has
failed. That's primarily because, beginning 30 years ago, the Commission wiped from its
books most of the public interest guidelines that consumers and advocates had won after
long, tough struggles for media reform. Our licensing approach, for one example,
became one of "just send us a post-card once every eight years and your renewal is a
slam-dunk, no questions asked." The FCC has not taken a license away for public
interest non-performance for the 10 years I have been here or in the 20 years before that.
Nor does the Commission even issue warnings or impose a probationary period giving a
poor-performing licensee a chance to clean up its act.
When the majority of meaningful rules were dismantled in the early `80s, we were
told there would be little impact on viewers. That turned out demonstrably not to be the
case, so before we loosen any more rules we should pause to recognize the outcome of
treating TV no differently than a toaster. The irony here is that when the actions of
government weaken the Fourth Estate, there is less of a check on government itself. The
Report quotes David Simon on this, saying "The next 10 or 15 years in this country are
going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption." Vigilant and vibrant
journalism can mightily discourage that from happening--if we take action now.
One of the three pillars underlying the public interest is localism. Localism is
about making sure citizens in local communities are supplied with in-depth programming
about public and civic affairs, that they have available programming to reflect the needs,
interests and cultures of the diverse people living there, and that those views have some
opportunity for expression on the airwaves. Localism means less program
homogenization, more local and less canned music, and community news actually
originated in the market where it is broadcast rather than being imported so much of the
time from far-away studios controlled by absentee owners. In this continuing era of
media industry consolidation, we all know that coverage of local music, local talent, local
culture, local sports, local diversity communities, local political issues and election
campaigns (other than horse-race odds-making) are more the exception than the rule.
The Staff Report does recognize problems in the generation of local news and
information and the lack of accountability journalism, to its credit. This underscores the
point I have been making for years. But instead of calling for stepped-up Commission
action, it tinkers around the edges, for example urging philanthropies to find better ways
to do their business, asking Congress to change the tax code, and suggesting that
government direct more of its advertising to local media. Then, rather stunningly I
thought, the Staff Report recommends shutting down our pending localism proceeding. I
have participated in dozens of hearings and hundreds of meetings on this docket. I have
travelled to hearings and town hall meetings across the country to learn directly from tens
of thousands of citizens what they think about their local and national media. I have
listened to folks far into the night in sessions that sometimes lasted as long as nine hours.
We have had Notices of Inquiry and Notices of Proposed Rulemaking on this proceeding,
we've done the analysis, we've made proposals--and now it is time to act. I remarked
after the Localism NPRM came out that some of its proposals could and should be
modified before they became final rules. This could be quickly and easily accomplished
and it makes more sense than walking away from a huge and still relevant record.
The Staff Report also delves into media ownership and correctly alludes to some
of the harmful effects of consolidation--less local news, fewer reporters, and less
diversity. But in the recommendations there is some hedging about whether all that
consolidation we are living with today--all those local, independent stations bought up
by mega-media interests--has been good or bad. The Report even suggests that some
additional newspaper-broadcast mergers could well be beneficial in some circumstances.
The policy prescriptions here, as elsewhere in the Staff Report, don't follow from the
diagnosis. Keeping in mind the paucity of resources dedicated to accountability
journalism today, I hope the Commission, in its upcoming Quadrennial Review, will
weigh much more seriously than it has in the past the heavy costs that media
consolidation has inflicted on America's news and information infrastructure.
Diversity is another pillar of the public interest. I'll put this simply--in spite of
occasional instances of progress in recent years, media's overall grade in covering,
reflecting, explaining and mirroring America's amazing cultural diversity is dreadful.
Diversity of viewpoint, diversity in ownership, diversity in who and what we see on TV,
and diversity in who runs the companies--all these are worse in media than in most other
American industries. The Staff Report seems aware of a serious problem here, but what's
lacking are recommendations for strong, implementable-now programs that can begin to
make a difference for generations of media injustice. As a starting point, I repeat my
suggestion of some months ago that we tee up at least one of the recommendations of the
Diversity Advisory Committee at every Agenda Meeting for the next year.
The Staff Report's primary policy prescription is disclosure. Put more and better
information online where consumers and advocates can readily access it and good things
will happen. I'm all for disclosure and was happy more than two years ago when my
colleagues and I voted for an Enhanced Disclosure item, which would provide
significantly more meaningful program information than is currently available. Since
then the item seems to be stuck somewhere in the kind of limbo Dante could relate to:
stranded somewhere between the FCC and the Office of Management and Budget. Why
don't we resolve to get it unstuck, do whatever fine-tuning is needed, and vote at next
month's Agenda Meeting on a revised Order, or at least a Further Notice of Proposed
Rulemaking, to finish this long-pending job?
But let's also remember 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. Why would consumers 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 incentive to move that hapless process online? Also on the
disclosure front, I continue to believe that the sooner we can ensure fuller disclosure of
political advertising sponsorship, the better off our democracy will be. Voters have a
right to know who is really behind all those glossy and sometimes wildly misleading ads
we see on TV. Concealing from voters that an ad brought to us by "Citizens for a More
Beautiful America" is really sponsored by a cabal of chemical companies polluting the
water we drink is not just non-disclosure--it is deception aimed at buying elections. We
need to fix this--and the FCC has an active role to play. I suggest the Commission tee
up an item in the next two months that moves us toward meaningful disclosure of
The Digital Age holds amazing promise for expanding the scope of our
democratic discourse. The Staff Report recognizes this and the present Commission has
focused tremendous 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. Right now
the vast majority of the news we read on the Internet is produced elsewhere--in
traditional media newsrooms. Interesting news and information innovations have, we all
know, developed on the Net. What hasn't developed there is the model, mass or
momentum to sustain the kind of resource-hungry journalism that an informed electorate
requires. An open Internet is not the entire solution for robust Twenty-first century
journalism. It's tougher than that, and I, for one, don't believe we'll get there absent some
positive public policy solutions. We have never had successful dissemination of news
and information in this country without some encouraging public policy guidance, going
back to the earliest days of the young republic when Washington, Madison and Jefferson
saw to it that newspaper were financially able to reach readers all across the fledgling
young republic. By the way, the Founders did not see this as violating the First
Amendment they had written because they believed, as the Supreme Court has upheld in
modern times, that the purpose of the First Amendment is the preservation of an
uninhibited market-place of ideas to sustain our democracy. The same purpose to inform
is what gave rise to broadcast licensing later on. I don't see any reason that we should
forsake America's workable past and deny our own history now.
There is more to be said about the Staff Report and I will be talking about it in the
days ahead. But rather than parsing the contents of a particular report, I intend to spend
most of my time encouraging the Commission to take up its charge of responsible public
interest oversight and to do everything it can to encourage the news and information and
diversity that Americans have a right to expect from their media. If the Staff Report
helps generate a spirited national dialogue toward that end, it will have served a purpose.
If we can learn from the history traced in the Report--much of it very good--we will be
able to craft stronger public policy proposals. And if the Commission can move swiftly
ahead on some of the good ideas that are offered--and there are indeed good ideas
offered--we can reap real benefits from it. I know very well that compiling this Staff
Report was not an easy task. In fact the undertaking was enormous, and I am cognizant
and appreciative of the work that Steve Waldman and his team put into this Report. I
hope Steve and his colleagues, for whom I have tremendous respect, will take the
comments I have made today in the spirit in which they are intended--to move beyond
this Report to an action plan making the FCC central to solving the challenges we face.
Launching or rededicating ourselves to such proceedings as enhanced disclosure,
diversity, localism, political advertising, media ownership and reinvigorated public
interest licensing will put us on the road we need to travel.
I also want us, as a Commission, to talk directly to the American people about all
this--in full Commission hearings in various parts of the country. I suggest, Mr.
Chairman, a minimum of three in the three months ahead--to see how well citizens
across the land think they are being served by our present news and information
infrastructure and to elicit their ideas for the future. I've had the opportunity to do this
kind of listening for 10 years now, and I never come back from such conversations
without knowing more than when I went out. Let's hold these hearings, talk with
citizens, expeditiously enhance the record, and take actions by the end of the year. There
is real urgency here.
These issues mean a lot to me because I believe they mean a lot to our country. I
have been outspoken about them--and sometimes blunt, I know. I intend to keep
speaking out on them in the months and, if needed, the years ahead. This nation faces
stark and threatening challenges to the leadership that brought us and the world
successfully through so many dire threats in the century just past. Now we confront
fundamental new uncertainties about the revival of our economy, where new jobs will
come from, how we will prosper in a hyper-competitive global arena, how to support the
kind of education that our kids and grandkids will need to thrive--indeed to survive--in
this difficult time, how to open the doors of opportunity to every American, no matter
who they are, where they live, or the particular circumstances of their individual lives.
We've got a lot to get on top of as a country and if we don't have the facts, don't have the
information, and don't have the news about what's going on in the neighborhood and the
town and the nation and world around us, our future will be vastly diminished. That's
why so much rides on the future of what we are talking about today. I'll say it again:
how these issues get decided will deeply affect our country's democracy and our
country's future. I cannot and will not leave these issues where they are.
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