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Remarks of Commissioner Copps Alliance for Community Media

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Released: October 11, 2011

REMARKS OF COMMISSIONER MICHAEL J. COPPS

ALLIANCE FOR COMMUNITY MEDIA

NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION

OCTOBER 11, 2011

Thank you for your very warm welcome. The pleasure is mine, I can assure you,
to be with folks who do so many good and wonderful things to bring local information,
news, music and just plain diversity to the communities they serve. That's a wonderful
word--"communities"--because it's where we live and work and raise our kids and try
to be good citizens. It's the immediate world that surrounds us and we need to know
about it, understand it, be a part of it, and help improve it. And yet many of the major
trends in media over the past 40 years have pushed "community" aside, diversity aside,
local cultures aside. It hasn't been good for citizens. It hasn't been good for media. And
it hasn't been good for America. So being here this afternoon with folks who are
working hard to provide platforms for diverse and unique perspectives is exactly where I
want to be. And I am always pleased to come over to the straight-thinking New America
Foundation which does a stellar job in bringing issues, intelligence and civic-mindedness
to our national dialogue.
These are challenging times for our media. I have spent the last 10 years on the
Federal Communications Commission working to ensure that every citizen in the land
has available the news and information they need to be informed, contributing
participants in the affairs of the nation. We have made some progress on a few fronts and
stopped some bad things from happening, and I'm happy about that. But overall our
public policy has not come close to matching the media needs of our people. I want to
stress one critical aspect of that today. My particular emphasis is going to be on the news
and information America gets--and doesn't get. And right now it's not getting enough--
not enough to inform us as citizens and not enough to provide us with the information we
need to make good decisions for the future of our country.
We have to be a news-literate society, understanding and engaged with the
substance of public issues if we are going to keep our self-governing experiment afloat.
Unfortunately, as this audience understands so well, too often real substantive news has
been replaced by fluff. Democracy is not well-served by fluff. It cannot be sustained by
fluff.
What we need to do as citizens is some hard thinking about how to better inform
ourselves in the digital age. How to provide the news and information infrastructure to
make sure that happens. In the same way that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison built
the information infrastructure of their time, we must build it anew in ours. The Founders
knew they were embarked on a risky experiment--preserving the fragile young republic
they had fought so hard for and finally won. They knew how important the spread of
information was to the success of their experiment. They wrote a First Amendment to
ensure that the American people would be informed. And they went on to build postal
roads and to subsidize the costs of distributing newspapers--all kinds of newspapers--so
that citizens everywhere in the land would have the news and information they needed in

order to make good decisions for the future of their young nation and to keep the
democratic experiment going. So they built the information infrastructure of early
America. Now it's our time to be information infrastructure builders just like the
Founders were information infrastructure builders--to provide ourselves with the tools
and the resources we need to sustain self-government and to safeguard and prosper our
nation. It's a time of new tools and new technologies compared to two centuries ago, to
be sure--but it is the very same enduring democratic challenge across all those years.
We are not meeting that challenge today. More and more, we see the perils of a
hyper-consolidated commercial media and the damage it has wreaked on our civic
dialogue. On top of that came successive Federal Communications Commissions that not
only blessed the mega-consolidation--actually encouraged it--but then went on to pull
the props out from under almost all of the public interest oversight that it previously
performed. As newly-consolidated companies tried to pay off the huge debts they had
incurred to combine, and as they strove to satisfy the always-escalating expectations of
Wall Street and the financial crowd for fatter bottom lines, the news media was the first
to feel the pain. Feel the ax, actually. Newsrooms were shuttered, journalists fired, and
investigative journalism put on life-support. The inevitable result has been, to be blunt
about it, a too often dumbed-down national dialogue on matters vital to our country's
future. The result has been evermore glitzy infotainment masquerading as real news. It
has been thousands of journalists walking the street in search of a job instead of walking
the beat in search of a story. It has been shouted opinion replacing solid fact. As the late
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan reminded us, everyone is entitled to their own
opinion--everyone is not entitled to their own set of facts.
Meanwhile the challenges we face as a nation are so deadly serious. Our economy
founders, our global competitiveness has lost its edge, nearly a fifth of the workforce is
un- or under-employed, our education lags with teachers suffering as much as the kids, 50
million Americans have no health insurance, and our children enter a world more
challenging by far than the one where you and I grew up. If we don't have a media that
can dig for facts, cover all these beats, separate fact from opinion, and hold the powerful
accountable, then tell me please how in the world are we going to meet and master these
challenges? How are we going to overcome? To me, getting our journalism and our
media right is Step Number One in getting our democracy right.
The Information Needs of Communities Report released by the FCC staff over the
summer identified enormous gaps that exist in our media environment, primarily the fact
that there is a serious dearth of local accountability journalism. But I was disappointed
that the Report didn't put forward a more robust set of recommendations for action--
particularly actions the Commission itself could take under the authority it already has.
That's where the Report fell down. It was kind of like a doctor identifying a patient's
symptoms--but then prescribing no medicine. There are plenty of worrisome symptoms
that the report does a good job of illuminating. For instance, one-third of local broadcast
TV stations do little to no news. Or this: institutions paying stations for favorable
coverage, including reports of a hospital that paid a TV broadcaster $100,000 for some
positive stories. And this, although it's a revelation that was no surprise to anyone
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working on media reform: the FCC is doing practically zero enforcement of broadcaster
licenses during the renewal process. The last time we took away a license on public
interest grounds was more than 30 years ago. What can we do about all this?
Well, here's one ill the Commission could fix right now: instead of the current
FCC rubberstamp license renewal process, wherein every eight years a broadcaster sends
in his application and we grant it without doing any serious review about the station's
public service performance, how about a policy that demands licensees to renew every
three years and we take a good, hard look at the licensees' records and match them up
with some guidelines to demonstrate they are providing your communities with real local
news and information, that they are reflecting the diversity of all your media market's
citizens, that they are open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, and that they are
actually talking with people in their communities of service about the programs people
would like to see and hear and the issues that are important to them? Is that asking too
much? I don't think so. And, if we find that a station is not serving its community of
license in a significant way, then let's take that license and give it to someone who will.
With that kind of approach, I don't think it would take very long for the word to go forth
that the FCC is back in the business of enforcing the public interest.
Here's another action we could take--say "No" to some of these mega-media
mergers that have done so much to eviscerate localism by allowing a few media moguls
to gobble up more and more of our broadcast outlets. In mega media, the bottom line
often trumps the public interest.
Or how about this--some positive steps to strengthen community media? Why
can't the Commission make this a priority? Why can't we understand its huge potential
to both enhance the media and empower communities? How about dealing promptly
with the issues and petitions you bring us? How about finally determining that carriage
of PEG channels on the basic tier is a public interest obligation that cable companies need
to live up to? We need to ensure this obligation is being met. And if a company insists
on all of the benefits of cable without being called so, we should insist that if they walk
like a duck and talk like a duck, they ought to be called a cable duck too. This has been
sitting for too long at the Commission while PEG channels get moved to digital Siberia.
Let's talk about new media for a minute or two. I know you folks are community
media now, not just community radio or community traditional media. And that's
exactly as it should be. If it works as it should, the Internet can provide us with a
wonderful new town-square of democracy, paved with broadband bricks. Barriers to
entry are low, the links are ubiquitous, and we can all be participants. Interesting
innovation and entrepreneurship are obviously taking place. So the future holds
tremendous digital promise. But, let's be candid--the promise of new media is far from
fulfilled. Nothing is guaranteed and, in truth, what has been lost in traditional media has
not yet been filled in by new media. Not by a long shot. And realize this: the
overwhelming bulk of the news we get--well over 90 per cent--continues to originate
from newspaper and broadcast journalism. The problem is: there is so much less of it.
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So if our goal is that every American should possess the skills to discern real
news from infotainment, trustworthy sources from untrustworthy, and fact from opinion,
then we have some work to do. If kids--and seniors like me, too--are going to harvest
the awesome potential of our media tools and technologies, then we have some serious
educating to do. And let's face it--making media work for all of us is tough slogging.
I see a huge role for community media centers and PEGs to play here. Already
you are helping to provide the skills the country needs in the new literacies--digital,
media and news literacy. I know that for several decades your members have been out in
the neighborhoods providing a platform for programming otherwise not seen, reaching
out to citizens the mega-broadcasters never even see. And I know the great work you are
already doing to provide critical training, to fill the many literacy voids that exist, and to
work with schools, anchor institutions and all sorts of community organizations. Now
the time is ripe for us all to pull together to strengthen our partnerships with media outlets
in communities across the land, including public media, and for your organizations to be
hubs of a new media revolution. The FCC shows signs of being a willing partner to take
some forward-looking steps on the digital literacy ramifications of broadband adoption,
and you and your members can do a lot to help make this a reality and to help ensure that
our initiatives have real clarity of focus on local communities and specifically the kind of
news and media literacy I have mentioned today. Our future is so tightly interwoven with
new media--indeed, all media--that if we can't field a K-12 media literacy curriculum
soon--and by that I mean a hefty down-payment in the next year or two--then we are
foolishly limiting the potential for future generations to take advantage of the new tools
out there that can help make them productive, informed, and involved members of their
communities and their nation.
I have heard some talk about calling a youth media symposium this fall or winter
to bring together the disparate groups who are working on literacy programs and to
actually get a coordinated effort up-and-running. This strikes me as an eminently
sensible and worthwhile idea. And I believe that community media folks could be at the
epicenter of getting this moving, attracting participants, and developing a program that
would lead to early action. Again, there is a huge role for your members to play here.
So the kinds of things I've mentioned--and they surely don't exhaust the list--
would go a long way toward bringing the public interest back to life. The FCC should
be--must be--in the vanguard of this. Many problems call out for Commission
attention, I know that. But none call out more urgently than these. And, after all, we
have a statutory obligation to serve the public interest; to foster localism, diversity and
competition--the three pillars of the public interest; and to encourage the information
infrastructure democracy requires.
So much to talk about, so much to do. I just want you to know that I intend to
keep working on these challenges in the months and years ahead. As some of you know,
I will be leaving the FCC later this year. But I'm not leaving these issues that we have
discussed here and that you and I have worked on for so long. I could never do that! I
will be trying to do my part and I know you will be doing yours. And I know how
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instrumental community media can be in confronting--and helping us overcome--these
many challenges.
We can get this done. And we have to. As my late, great friend Walter Cronkite
said, "America is the most prosperous and powerful nation in perhaps the history of the
world. We can certainly afford to sustain a media system of which we can be proud." I
say "Amen" to that.
Thank you.
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