Navigating a Rocky Media Landscape


ACRU Staff


June 18, 2011

This column by ACRU Senior Fellow Robert Knight was published June 17, 2011 on The Washington Times website.

When I was a reporter years ago in Ocean City, Md., I learned the hard way that freedom of the press can be expensive.

In the dark days of winter, ad revenue was scarce. Both weekly papers lived to a great extent off the city’s legal ads. Our editorials regularly chided Mayor Harry Kelley, while our competitor paper remained mayor-friendly. So when Mr. Kelley got teed off, he yanked our legal ads but not the competing paper’s. I can still recall racing with our staff to the local bank before paychecks started bouncing.

Today, the “legacy” media – newspapers, magazines and broadcasters – face more than ornery public officials. The Internet is wreaking havoc on traditional funding streams while opening countless opportunities for more voices, citizen journalism and the end of the Big Three TV networks’ dominance. The latter actually began with the debut of CNN in 1980 and Fox News Channel in 1996, but the Internet and talk radio have speeded the decline of ABC, CBS and NBC as well as scores of newspapers and magazines.

With 13,400 journalists laid off in the past four years, reporting has become a mile wide and an inch deep. There are more sources and stories than ever, but fewer in-depth pieces except for interminable public interest thumb-suckers that editors like to publish in order to win Pulitzers.

The winnowing out presents major problems, including less scrutiny of the ever-growing government. Still, the “legacy” media anchor the whole information network because even bloggers have to quote reliable sources to be credible. But everything is changing with lightening speed.

The media are in such flux that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a 465-page report on June 9 that tries to figure out what, if anything, the government should do about it.

The good news is that The Changing Media Landscape rejects a return to the radio-stifling Fairness Doctrine and also FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps’ dangerous idea to create a public-values test for broadcaster license renewals.

The FCC report frequently warns against government entanglement and cites advances by the new media, including “legacy media” websites. Also, nonprofits now do a lot of original reporting, and bloggers analyze government reports. Instant videos are possible from millions of cellphone users.

The authors fret mostly over the dearth of “local news,” which is not surprising given that the full title is The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age by Steven Waldman and the Working Group on Information Needs of Communities. But the report provides countervailing facts, such as, “Over the last seven years, the number of hours of local TV news has risen by 35 percent,” along with local newspaper readership.

The report also calls for trimming red tape, informing the public when an advertiser pays for story placement (“pay for play”) and for the FCC to consider letting noncommercial broadcasters, including religious entities, use up to 1 percent of on-air time for fundraising.

Finally, the report endorses public-private collaborations, which is sketchy. But it also trashes government subsidies for journalists, a harebrained idea hatched by the far-left Free Press, which envisioned a $50 billion “Public Media Trust Fund.” Just imagine hordes of AmeriCorps volunteers manning the brave new newsroom. The report warns, “AmeriCorps has grown and prospered by focusing on the forms of service on which most Americans can agree. … Creating a government-financed AmeriCorps for reporters would potentially seriously harm AmeriCorps.” (p. 357)

Actually, I’d worry more about Pravda-like bulletins, not harm to one of President Obama’s favorite boondoggles.

Overall, there is a lot to like in this FCC report, even if it describes the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as “currently the most trusted and neutral source for news, according to polls.”

The bad news is that the report calls for the government to use race and sex to assign favorable tax certificates, and to collect data on “racial, ethnic and gender employment at broadcast stations and cable systems,” which was discontinued in 1996. The report notes that courts have forbidden race-based policies, but it skips over that speed bump to call for exactly that.

Also, the report implies that the Internet is under the FCC. This reflects the power grab by FCC commissioners when they issued their “net neutrality” rules in December in defiance of a federal court ruling and Congress’ unwillingness to extend that power to FCC bureaucrats.

All this said, the report is must-reading for media watchers. Mr. Waldman, co-founder of and senior adviser to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, clearly appreciates both the old and new media, having had experience in both. You can almost forget that as a Beliefnet blogger, he suggested finessing the abortion issue to speed passage of Obamacare.

Here is one of his signature passages from the FCC report:

“It is a confusing time. Breathtaking media abundance lives side-by-side with serious shortages in reporting.

“Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, certainly conveyed the gist when he estimated that humans now create as much information in two days as we did from the appearance of Homo sapiens through 2003. Or, we could consider that Facebook did not exist in 2003 – and now reaches more people than all other major U.S. media outlets combined.

“It is also important to realize that just because this report points out a particular problem does not mean that we believe the FCC has the responsibility or authority to solve it. We do not view the government as the main player in this drama.”

No, let’s hope that compiling this 465-page report is enough for now.



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