Craig Parshall, General Counsel


Media Future: The Narrow Gate

June 22, 2011

When the FCC launched a study group two years ago, headed up by journalist and Beliefnet founder Steve Waldman, and tasked it to study the “future of media” in America, I was suspicious. After all, the project had been preceded by complaints from pundits about the decline in standards of journalism and the crisis among financially failing newspapers, and their pleas for solutions had ranged from federal bailouts, to recommended government guidelines on news reporting, to super-enlarging the reach of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Did anyone, I wondered, remember that our Founding Fathers stood firm on the freedom (and independence) of the press even before drafting our Constitution, before we had a flag, indeed, even before the inkwell had been dipped for the drafting of the Declaration of Independence?

Happily, my misgivings proved to be largely unjustified. The “future of media” study (renamed “The Information Needs of Communities”) by Waldman, et al, was released week before last. The Atlantic dubbed its recommendations “disappointingly narrow….” Narrow, yes. But in my book, far from disappointing.

The 360-page compendium of data and observations about the variety and status of the American media took a restrained view of the federal role regarding the press, avoiding any of the drastic federalizing – or subsidizing remedies – that had been bandied about. Instead, it made some helpful observations that, if the FCC or Congress ever implement, might actually do some good – a too rare phenomena in Washington. Here are some of them:

Nonprofit broadcasters, including non-com Christian stations, need to be rid of illogical FCC rules that impair their financial viability and their programming partnerships. Thus, non-coms should be able to use up to one percent of annual airtime to raise funds for other third-party non-profit groups without having to get a specific FCC waiver (the rule now), which previously has been a near-impossibility except in cases of catastrophic events (think: Katrina or Haiti). I advanced this idea on behalf of NRB when I was invited to testify at the FCC’s panel last year and was happy to see the report embrace it. Another recommendation we proposed – that non-com broadcasting restrictions be loosened regarding the ability to promote program sponsors on-air – was not adopted, but at least the report cleared up the fact that “FCC rules [do not] prohibit” non-com stations from promoting their sponsors’ services or products “on their websites.”

FCC rules that unreasonably control media viewpoint or programming decisions should be rejected. The abhorrent “Fairness Doctrine,” which was abandoned by the Commission in the 1980’s, needs a final and permanent burial. The FCC should, the report notes, “eliminate any outstanding uncertainty” that the Fairness Doctrine is not only gone, but should never return. Likewise the “localism” proceeding of the FCC, with its ill-advised proposals for mandates about programming decisions, should be formally terminated.

An FCC culture that imposes burdens on broadcasters with no discernable benefit to the public interest should be reversed. The report suggests abandonment of the old requirement that broadcasters  maintain paper files for public inspection. Further, it recommends a rejection of the long-standing FCC bureau tendency of using the license renewal process to “exer[t] leverage over broadcasters to ensure that they serve their communities.” Instead, the report notes, broadcaster disclosures about programming should be made so that consumers can make media choices, rather than enabling federal regulators to mete out punishments.

Whether this lengthy media study will affect any change remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: by taking the “narrow gate” regarding proposals for the media landscape, the report on the future of media necessarily rejected the “broad path” of unconstitutional federal intervention and taxpayer subsidies. And for those of us who think that heavy-handed government control of media is antithetical to liberty (remember Pravda?), this should be received as good news for the news and information industry.