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Craig Parshall, General Counsel


Broadcast & Broadband: The Urge to Federalize

March 17, 2010

The USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism recently released its media report, finding that eight Los Angeles TV stations examined spent an average of only about 22 seconds per 30-minute news segment on issues of “local” government. That provided more fuel to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a long time critic of current media trends in news coverage and journalism. That same week, Commissioner Copps said that the USC report needs to be made a part of the FCC’s current proceeding (“The Future of Media and Information Needs of Communities in the Digital Age,” a/k/a “Future of Media”), that is examining the present status and the future trend of all media, and is asking whether the federal government needs to change things. Commissioner Copps went on to indicate that there is a “digital divide” that separates “our lower income, less educated members of society from broadband media,” further concluding that this demographic group is left with only traditional media news (i.e., broadcast news), an area that Mr. Copps believes is desperately void of adequate “local” news coverage. Here at NRB, we wonder whether this is but another adjunct to the ill-conceived “localism” proceeding launched by the prior FCC administration and now is awaiting decision by the Commission.

On February 18th, NRB filed its Comments with the FCC on the “future of media” proceeding. We raised a number of concerns with the direction of that FCC inquiry, including a possible inclination to burden broadcasters with new “public interest” mandates, something that Commissioner Copps advocates when he calls for the Commission to “put teeth” into the “public interest” standard that applies to broadcast licensees. But Mr. Copps is not alone in suggesting aggressive new broadcast regulations. Two weeks ago, at an FCC panel discussion, Media Access Project President Andrew Schwartzman called for a strategy to rein-in broadcasters by cutting the FCC license renewal period from eight years down to three years, and by requiring FCC audits of 10% of all stations, to determine if they are performing in “the public interest.” But there is a kind of irony in Commissioner Copps’ comments about inadequate broadcast news coverage. He implies that access to broadband (i.e., Internet) for more Americans would be an improvement of that situation. Yet, in May of last year, Commissioner Copps noted in particular that “the Internet and bloggers” have contributed to the decline of American journalism. A report in the Columbia Journalism Review provides some support for that correlation, finding that 35% of published magazines with online versions either used a less stringent fact-checking process in their online publication, or didn’t fact-check at all. What we are left with, then, is an undeniable movement toward encouraging (or forcing) media to convert to the web, including the creation of a national broadband policy, which the FCC delivered to Congress yesterday. Yet at the same time there is a call for standards to be imposed so as to raise the quality of journalism on that very same electronic platform. But who will make those standards – and who will enforce them? The writing on the wall seems clear: to me (particularly after a quick glance through the 360 page National Broadband Plan submitted to Congress yesterday)
at some time in the near future there will be a proposal for a nationalized, federal approach to Internet media. And when that time comes, NRB will remind America of the vision of our Founders for a privately controlled press; they so believed in that concept that they imbedded it into the First Amendment. Or as Founding Father Edmund Randolph said in his letter to James Madison, “The liberty of the press is indeed a blessing, which ought not to be surrendered ….”