Rebooting Media Policy

The laws and regulations that shape journalism in America are like the 8-track cassettes of the media policy world: They still play, but they’re antiquated, inadequate and misaligned for our digital age. This is according to Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation, who just published an extensive open letter in the Columbia Journalism Review to the head of the Federal Communication Commission’s “Future of Media” initiative.

“We badly require new policies and new thinking in Washington because the media policy regime we have inherited is out of date and inadequate for the times in which we live,” writes Coll. He continues, “Our inherited policy regime is constructed on a foundation of more than a dozen major pieces of federal legislation, as well as in the regulatory rules and state and local laws.”

The letter comes just weeks before the FCC is expected to issue a sweeping report based on over one year of research, hearings and conversation about the future of media and what policy changes might be necessary to protect it. For Coll, this report couldn’t come at a better time. “When such technological, industrial, and economic changes dislodge the assumptions underlying public policy, the smart response is to update and adjust policy in order to protect the public interest,” he writes. “And politically plausible reforms that would clearly serve the public are within reach. It is time to reboot the system.”

At the center of Coll’s open letter is the media’s responsibility to the public. At a time when new nonprofit journalism start-ups are forging a new era of public service and accountability journalism, and our traditional public media system is investing deeply in new local journalism projects, we need to take a hard look at where the public interest is being best served. Coll points out that the National Association of Broadcasters claim the public interest obligations cost them roughly $7 billion each year in service to the public. However, based on new research from the staff at New America, studies like this from USC Annenberg, and years of anecdotal evidence, it’s clear that many broadcasters may be providing little of real value to communities and citizens.

Coll outlines a number of concrete policy reforms that could immediately begin to update our analog media policy for the digital age and spur new kinds of investment into public and noncommercial media around the country. I won’t reveal those here – you should go read the article.

However, it is worth pointing out that while Coll’s letter was ostensibly addressing the FCC, I read it as a clear call to action for all of us working on the future of journalism. A big part of Coll’s opening is a careful and thoughtful response to his fellow journalists who have reacted so strongly against the FCC and earlier Federal Trade Commission inquiries. Without minimizing the real concerns that underlay much of the overblown reactions that many journalists have to discussions about media policy, Coll makes it clear that policy always has and always will shape the news industry. “It would be no wiser to abandon altogether the policies that set rules and allocate funds across this system than it would be to stop regulating oil leases in ocean waters or maintaining public parks,” he writes.

The choice before journalists today is whether to engage in this debate, and ensure that good policies are written that are informed by journalists and responsive to their concerns, or whether to sit on the sidelines and let lobbyists shape the media.

At the end of his piece, Coll turns back to the people at the center of his article and acknowledges that this is not just a question for the FCC or for journalists – though those two are key. The question of how we will update – or as he says, “reboot” – our media policy framework is a question that beckons an enormous constituency:

That is not a matter of left versus right, or of competition between political parties; it concerns the health of civil society. A campaign to reform and revitalize public media waged to advance such a vision will have many constituents: rural states left out of the urban media cacophony; independent voters and engaged citizens searching for reason and cross-checked facts, as well as in-depth reporting that will hold power to account; diverse community and ethnic groups seeking more inclusive sources of information; educators and public health institutions seeking reliable channels of public-minded reporting about subjects too often neglected; and politicians of all ideological stripes whose careers are unreasonably endangered by undisciplined, self-interested electronic publishers.

The public has a stake and needs to have a voice in rethinking how our media and our media policy will serve the public interest in the future. The FCC will issue its report, but then it’ll be up to us to see through the policy changes we need. We are building that campaign, and we need the stakeholders that Coll lists – and many more – involved.

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