Office of Communications, Inc.

UCC Media Justice Update

Which is better: Ignorance or Knowledge?

Last week Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler concluded that he was not comfortable with part of a comprehensive study of the media marketplace and decided to eliminate the portion of the study that gave him concern.

 

Why would the chair of an independent federal regulatory agency want to stop conducting research? Well, in this case he was falsely accused of launching a government effort to tell reporters and journalists what to write and report. If the FCC had been planning to do such a thing, all of us would have breathed a sigh of relief that such an effort was cancelled. 

 

But the truth of the matter is that last week conservative activists scored a victory in favor of ignorance over facts. This so-called controversy has a lot in common with the false debate over whether greenhouse gas causes climate change or whether smoking causes cancer. It is entirely possible next week we'll hear accusations that the studies are really all about affirmative action or voting fraud or some other conservative lightening rod.

 

But, I can hear even my friends on the left asking, shouldn't the government always steer clear of any hint of impacting journalism? The truth is, a wide variety of laws and policies already impact journalism. Everything from libel laws, to copyright rules, to cable access channels, to broadcast indecency prohibitions impact journalism and media. The real question is, do you want an agency that makes media and communications policy to do so without a fundamental understanding of how the media marketplace works? Apparently the critics last week would rather the FCC function from a place of ignorance rather than knowledge.  

 

This lack of knowledge has been a real problem for the FCC. In fact, a number of policies that many of last week's critics presumably support have been overturned in court because the FCC did not have the facts and analysis to support its decisions. George Bush's FCC tried twice to substantially relax rules that would have led to significantly more consolidation in the media. The courts said no--not because the court has a view on whether big media or competitive media is better--but because the FCC didn't have enough legitimate data to back up its rule changes.   

 

We can all agree that media and journalism functions best when many outlet and many journalists compete with one another for stories. Journalism functions best when reporters reflect the wide variety of people and communities that are part of these United States. Could a reporter that has never set foot in rural Alabama or remote Wyoming do justice to the stories that impact people there? Shouldn't our media cover both Latinos who are personally or professionally impact by immigration reform in addition to people who strongly oppose it? Often our very lives depend on the media. Just ask people out west evacuating from wild fires or people trying to find safe drinking water in West Virginia. People use media of all kinds to find jobs, learn how to safeguard their own health, pinpoint this morning's traffic jam, or figure out which candidate to support in the next election.   It matters to all of us that the systems we use work well. We can allow the media to get bigger and bigger and swallow up all different points of view into a single, infotainment-producing monolith. Or, we can adopt policies that promote competition and vibrancy in the marketplace of ideas.

 

So back to the studies debated so intensely last week. That research protocol was part of a multi-year deliberate process to assemble all the scholarship on the media's function, building on a comprehensive study and a literature review of more than 500 studies conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg Communications and Journalism School and a phalanx of the leading scholars in the field. The research design was available to the public since last May, when the FCC sought input and comment. The process underway was designed to test the research instrument to verify its effectiveness in the field. 

 

And what of the so-called secret army of "media monitors" spreading out across the country to intimidate journalists into giving the "right" answers and covering the "right" stories? They don't exist. What we did have government-funded researchers conducting a voluntary, anonymous series of questions to understand better the decision-making process in newsrooms generally.   The study would have permitted the FCC to start from a place of knowledge and facts when it makes policy, rather than merely guessing about what is driving news and story production in this rapidly-changing media environment. When reporters are sometimes simultaneously video reporters, bloggers, free-lance journalists and ideological activists, when ownership structures of media get more complex and misleading every day, when TV viewers in cities around the country see the same exact newscast on two or three different networks every evening, we know that things are changing at a pretty rapid clip. And it is up to the policymakers to at least try to keep pace. 

 

This data is important. A knowledgeable expert FCC is important. Policies to promote a multiplicity of viewpoints and as many journalists as we can muster (covering stories from all perspectives) are important. Scholars have been working on this type of research for years and hopefully they can continue to do so now that the self-appointed First Amendment defenders have declared victory.   Maybe the FCC will at least be permitted to read these studies if they are completed by scholars and academics. Because how can the FCC help safeguard journalist independence if it doesn't have data on how journalists operate?

Categories: media concentration

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