Beyond Blue Ribbons

In general, there have been three kinds of responses to the calls for President Obama to endorse a commission to on the future of journalism and public media in America:

1. “Keep the government out of my journalism.”
2. “What good will a commission do?”
3. “Thank goodness, it’s about time!”

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post exemplified the second and third responses in his article earlier this week, essentially arguing, “We don’t need no stinkin’ presidential commission.” My colleague Josh Silver has already outlined a few of the flaws in Kurtz’s article, but I want to step back and explore these responses to the commission idea in more depth.

”Keep the government out of my journalism.”

As Silver notes, the biggest problem with Kurtz’s argument is that it’s premised on the mistaken notion that the press is not a political issue. In reality, policy decisions — good and bad — have shaped the course of America journalism since the Founding Fathers started subsidizing the mailing of newspapers through the postal service.

The question is not if government should have a role in the future of journalism and public media, but what role it should play. Kurtz perpetuates the misconception that journalists and local communities have no power to shape policies addressing the future of journalism and the media. The fact is, journalists are always being told to stay out of politics (often by other journalists), but their bosses have no problems getting their hands dirty in Washington. When policies are made behind closed doors, with Big Media’s enormous corps of lobbyists, guess who those policies benefit? Not the journalists – and not their communities.

So let’s stop pretending journalism has nothing to do with policies or politics. If we want better journalism, we have to get off the sidelines and fight for the news we need. A national commission could bring together divided interests and organize a comprehensive effort across government, industry and public stakeholders to meet the challenges facing the media.

“What good will a commission do?”

Silver reminds Kurtz that commissions are much more than “classic bureaucratic substitute for doing something.” Commissions helped establish our public broadcasting system, shined a spotlight on vital national issues, and altered the debate about key events in our history.

Kurtz also seems to assume that a national commission would just be about newspapers. When Dan Rather first floated this idea in Aspen, Colo., he talked about a commission on both independent reporting and public media. We are overdue for a critical look at the public media system and the role it could play in mediating the journalism crisis.

Indeed, in a comment posted on Silver’s response over at the Huffington Post, former Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley argues, “In countries such as Canada, Australia and Great Britain, the public service broadcasters are primary sources of news and good journalism. … It’s past time the United States had a real public service national news service that was accessible to everyone, regardless of their income or location.”

We cannot examine the future of journalism without examining the potential our public media system to deliver the news we need. There is already a rich architecture of public media in America that is poised to take on a number of roles in filling our information needs, but without increased funding, leadership, and diversity they are hanging in the balance. These are just some of the issues this commission would need to address.

“Thank goodness, it’s about time!”

While Kurtz suggests that we should just let the market figure it out, I believe that we need real leadership and a real national conversation about the future of journalism.

I am sympathetic to Kurtz’s skepticism over more forums and panels, lamenting that “the media’s problems have been endlessly chewed over by the chattering classes at forums, seminars, discussions and panels.” But maybe the problem is who has been included in those discussions.

In the face of the very real threat that many of our communities are being cut off from the news and information they need, I don’t think the answer is to stop talking about it. Instead of dismissing the idea of a commission, we ought to think creatively about how this commission could build on – instead of duplicating – the rich body of work that has already been developed by academics, foundations and think tanks.

We should get beyond the idea of a blue-ribbon commission, and start thinking about this as a “citizen’s commission” – a national working group on the future of journalism and public media. The goal of this group would be to take the collected research, recommendations, proposals and value statements that have been produced and begin to craft a practical and urgent roadmap for real action.

The work of crafting this national strategy should be a privately funded effort, but it will need leadership and attention from Washington to make a real impact. If this commission can draw up a blueprint for concrete policy changes that could help new and old news organizations alike, it will need Congress and the White House to endorse the process and listen to the recommendations.

Such a commission would be focused on structural change, not on regulating or restricting content. Indeed, its mission would be to advance opportunities to protect the First Amendment and promote the widest possible dissemination of diverse viewpoints.

There is work to do. And a commission is just the model to move this discussion forward. What we need now is a focused effort that stands on the shoulders of what has come before — something that will synthesize, sharpen and direct specific programs for change. Journalism has plenty of advocates. Right now it need leaders.

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