Craig Parshall, General Counsel


FCC Inquiry: Taking the “Free”
out of Free Press?

February 17, 2010

The FCC recently launched an inquiry titled, “The Future of Media and Information Needs of Communities in a Digital Age.” It is the kind of academic-sounding FCC proceeding that is likely to be met with yawns, or blank stares – until, of course we get to the fine print. Here’s some of the potent small print behind all of this: the project is being headed up by Steven Waldman, Senior Advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, founder of Beliefnet and former mainstream Washington-based print journalist. Not a media lightweight to be sure, Mr. Waldman has made the stunning pronouncement in a Broadcasting & Cable interview last week that it would be “fine” “if all the newspapers and TV stations disappeared tomorrow” as long as “they were immediately replaced by something else that would serve the same function for citizens and democracy.” I have been reviewing this Future of Media investigation in consultation with Dr. Frank Wright, our President & CEO, and Bob Powers, NRB’s Vice-President of Government Relations, and will be filing our Comment with the FCC tomorrow. Among other things, this Commission inquiry will be looking at how the federal government can raise the standards of journalism. Given that the freedom of the press was designed by our Founders to protect a free media from the over-reaching of the government, we are seriously troubled by that concept.

Mr. Waldman’s response to such First Amendment concerns has been that “the government is already very involved with the media.” But that doesn’t quell our concerns. The proceeding is also looking at increasing taxpayer funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a concept that some academics and think-tanks have suggested as a way to better America’s media landscape. However, as we note in our Comment, that idea is ironic – and highly illogical – considering the fact that this FCC inquiry recognizes the dire economic straits within the privately owned media. Is it fair to force both privately owned and non-commercial stations, all struggling financially, to compete even more with super-funded public broadcasters that are subsidized by tax dollars? But NRB also sees a positive opportunity in this FCC inquiry. It has asked how non-commercial broadcasters can do their job better. We have listed several ideas for the FCC in our Comment: (1) relax rules for non-commercial stations so they can have more freedom to raise funds for worthy non-profit causes, and make it easier for non-coms to solicit sponsors and underwriters for their programming as long as the non-commercial status of NCE stations remains intact; and (2) don’t further burden broadcasters with new “public interest” or “localism” regulations. In short: “fertilize” the media landscape by encouraging it and freeing it up – but don’t “subsidize it.”