The Real Crisis of Campus Free Expression

College campuses should be bastions of free speech.  Today, they often seem to be the very places in American society where there is the least tolerance for controversial ideas.  Unfortunately, much of the discussion of why this has occurred is based on the ad hoc experiences of a few campuses, including Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, and Middlebury that briefly gained national attention when lecturers were harassed or prevented from speaking by unruly and, occasionally, riotous crowds.

Systematic public opinion polling and anecdotal evidence suggests that the real problem of free expression on college campuses is much deeper than episodic moments of censorship: With little comment, an alternate understanding of the First Amendment has emerged among young people that can be called “the right to non-offensive speech.”  This perspective essentially carves out an exception to the right of free speech by trying to prevent expression that is seen as particularly offensive to an identifiable group, especially if that collective is defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity.

Continue reading “The Real Crisis of Campus Free Expression”

Who’s Behind the Push for Net Neutrality?

If “net neutrality” were a life form, it would be classified as a simple organism.  And that lack of complexity, as it happens, is its very appeal to certain “progressives,” garden-variety regulators, and large Internet companies, who see in government regulation of the Internet opportunities to cement and extend their franchises.

The brave and gifted Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Ajit Pai, and former commissioner Robert McDowell, are doing all they can to point out the many already identifiable problems, as well as potential pitfalls, that line the path of this regulatory nightmare.  Among those problems are higher user fees to consumers, a slowdown in the rate of investment in broadband infrastructure, regulatory creep, and the wrong kind of example to set before foreign dictators and tyrants.

Alas, none of this is likely to deter the three Democratic FCC commissioners, as instructed by the White House, from passing this regulation.

What has not been much discussed in all of this is the role in the promotion of net neutrality played by some of the actors: activist groups like Free Press, Public Knowledge, and Media Matters; huge grant-giving foundations like the Ford, Soros, and Knight foundations; and companies like Google.   >>Read More

Reflections on the Sale of the Washington Post

Much is being said, almost all of it guesswork, about why Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, what he plans to do with it, and what it all means.  Some argue it’s just a kind of trophy purchase, others that it was done to gain political influence, for Mr. Bezos and/or Amazon, in the Nation’s Capital.

Still others see in the purchase a path leading to a future in which important elements of the news media are nonprofit entities, either by design or in consequence of operations that, while unprofitable, are subsidized by owners with deep pockets.

I would guess, and hope, that all of these speculations are false.  The more likely reason that Mr. Bezos bought the Post is because he suspects he can operate it, using the tools of the new technologies, at a profit.  That by doing so he would also, serendipitously, save professional journalism may be a by-product of his purchase, whether it’s part of his motivation or not.

In 2000, The Media Institute gave Mr. Bezos its Free Speech Award, largely in recognition of the global reach of his book selling operation, sometimes over the objections of local governments.  In his acceptance speech, Mr. Bezos talked at length about the path he and his wife had followed in the creation and growth of Amazon, and the picture that emerged was not that of a politician or a philanthropist.

Instead, Mr. Bezos came across as an ambitious, disciplined, and hard-charging businessman.  (That same year, the Institute gave its other annual award to Robert Johnson, founder of BET, and I have often thought how similar the two men are.)

To put it another way, I think Mr. Bezos has too much self respect, and too little ego, to have purchased the Post either as a kind of grandstanding event, the better to aggrandize himself or Amazon, or to stand by and subsidize indefinitely a financially failing company.

After all, if news organizations are not created to make a profit, what are the standards of success or failure?  The idea that nonprofit status produces a more value-free product is belied by the reality that most philanthropists operating in the realm of the media have decided political views, a la the Knight Foundation, ProPublica, Open Society Institute, etc.

Going forward, there is one thing I would recommend to the gentleman: that he insist that the editors and reporters at the Post understand how important it is that the media be a watchdog on government. After all, if the media are not a check on government, who is?  If the only role of the media is to deliver eyeballs to advertisers, the media wouldn’t deserve a First Amendment and the Founders wouldn’t have produced one.

Which is not to say that the Post is in all ways politically or ideologically one dimensional.  As contrasted with the New York Times, where the right-leaning Ross Douthat toils away in solitary isolation, the Post’s editorial page features lots of conservative columnists.

The problem so defined is not in the editorial pages but in the news pages – the paper’s breaking, feature, and investigative reports.  No subject better illustrates this point than the paper’s coverage of the ruinous, not to say corrupt, fiscal antics of Congress and the Administration.

Perhaps the greatest threat not just to the financial health but to the very security of this country’s citizens is the growth of government, and of the corresponding governmental debt, at the federal, state, and local levels. Nor is this a new development. It’s been going on for years and the Washington Post has looked right past the kind of things that, were they done in the private sector, would yield indictments and incarceration.

There are things to admire in the Washington Post, and it’s to be expected that Mr. Bezos would not come out with early comments of concern about the editorial product there.  But if he cares about the promotion of excellence in journalism, and would like to add conservatives and Republicans to the newspaper’s admirers, this is something he ought to put in his cart.

                                               

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Media Institute Response to ‘The Truth About Google, Search, and the Media Industry’

GUEST BLOG

[EDITORS’ NOTE:  Kurt Wimmer is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Covington & Burling LLP.  He is chairman of The Media Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council, and is the principal author of the Institute’s white paper to the Federal Trade Commission about Google’s practices.  The article below is in response to the rebuttal of Oct. 6 by Adam Kovacevich of Google, which can be found on this site.]  

By Kurt Wimmer, Esq.

When Google wrote the Media Institute about the white paper we submitted to the FTC (“How Google is Dominating the Media Economy”), Patrick Maines invited Google to respond on this blog.  Frankly, we were pleased that we’d prompted a frank conversation about Google and the future of media.  We expected and were ready to welcome energetic disagreement with our position; after all, one of the Media Institute’s underlying missions is promoting a diversity of voices on major public policy issues.

But instead of deepening the debate, Google dusted off talking points that it’s been using for years, most of which our paper readily acknowledges. 

We don’t question, for example, that Google News drives some traffic to some publications’ websites.  Most viewers of Google News do not click through to any of the media sites from which Google scrapes content – about half of all users go no further than Google News and thus do not generate a dime for the content producers.  But we know that some traffic does flow from Google News to publishers’ sites.  We do have serious doubts about the “value” of this traffic, and we worry that, as it has in other areas, Google increasingly uses its News page to cannibalize whatever value there is.  Whether these websites can “opt out” of News is unhelpful because of the predicament News puts publishers in – opt-in, and feed the Google monster; opt-out and starve alone.  Our concerns do not relate to publishing only; as our paper pointed out, Google Places is following the Google News model in using its search dominance to scrape and scuttle local review websites.  Google’s response breezily ignores these points.

We have the same objections to Google’s treatment of Books and YouTube in its response, which again relies on broad statements rather than engaging in any serious debate.  Google simply bypasses our basic premise, which is that it has used its scale to coerce content makers into accepting the Google business model.  Google claims legal victory in the dispute between YouTube and Viacom, but the Second Circuit won’t hold oral argument to settle the matter until later this month.  Given the brazen evidence that YouTube was founded and grew on a business model of copyright infringement, we believe that Viacom is likely to take the upper hand – but we won’t claim victory until the Second Circuit rules, and suggest that Google should do the same.

And Judge Chin’s concerns about the Google Books Settlement have left that agreement hanging by a thread.  Though we disagree with Google’s legal arguments in both cases, we wouldn’t have criticized Google for offering an outspoken defense of those positions.  But Google, rather than addressing the colossal quantities of content it stockpiles at the expense of creators and competitors, offers only the same hollow defense: We bring books and video to a wider audience.  This is no help, in our view, given the costs that Google’s response sidesteps.  Infringement always brings works to a “wider audience” – an audience that the creators of the works did not agree to serve for free, and one that does not fund the creative spark that created the works.  In fact, both Google Books and YouTube exist not to bring works to a wider audience, but to create dominant platforms for works that deny creators the benefit of a competitive marketplace.

The rise of Google’s dominance in media deserves a candid discussion, both here and at the FTC.  We wish Google had contributed something new to the discussion, rather than just reiterating its weary talking points.  We would welcome any additional comments that Google would like to make in defense of its position or in rebuttal to our white paper.

                                   

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute’s Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Response to The Media Institute White Paper: The Truth About Google, Search, and the Media Industry

GUEST BLOG

[EDITORS’ NOTE: In this space we offer Google an opportunity to take issue with the White Paper that The Media Institute filed with the FTC in August.  Google’s response is printed below exactly as we received it.]

By Adam Kovacevich, Head of Competition, Public Policy and Public Affairs, Google (Washington, D.C., office)

In August 2011, The Media Institute submitted a white paper to the Federal Trade Commission claiming that Google practices could “foreclose competition” in the media industry. The white paper largely restates past criticisms of Google on copyright and intellectual property issues. We appreciate the opportunity to post a rebuttal. Some of these criticisms are obsolete or have already been litigated; others we believe are just wrong. Here are the facts:

Google Has a Record of Helping the News Industry

Google News drives valuable traffic to news organizations’ websites for free. Each click from Google News to a publisher’s site is a business opportunity, offering newspapers and other publishers the chance to show ads, register users and earn loyal readers. Google News follows international copyright law by only showing users a headline and a short snippet for each news story.

Google sends news publishers more than 4 billion clicks each month. Google News provides about 1 billion of these clicks, and an additional 3 billion come from other Google services like web search. This means that Google sends approximately 100,000 business opportunities to publishers every minute.

Google News works with publishers by offering them useful tools. For example, Editors’ Picks is a feature that enables editors in newsrooms to identify the stories they believe should receive attention. Additionally, the new “standout” tag on Google News gives publishers the ability to self-designate unique and noteworthy content from their own or other publications. Articles tagged as “standout” may appear with a “Featured” label on the Google News homepage and News Search results. [Google News Blog, Aug. 4, 2011, Sept. 24, 2011]

News Organizations Can Easily Opt-Out of Google News

News publishers have control over their inclusion in Google News. If at any point a web publisher wants Google to stop indexing their content, they’re able to do so quickly and effectively by sending Google an opt-out request. Google also provides publishers with instructions to block their content from Google News, should they choose to do so. [GoogleNewsBlog, Dec. 2, 2009]

Opting out of Google News does not remove content from Google Web Search results. If a publisher opts out of Google News, but stays in Web Search, their content will still show up as natural web search results. [GoogleNewsBlog, Dec. 2, 2009]

Google Is Investing in the Future of Journalism

Google donated $5 million to nonprofits devoted to developing journalism in the digital age. $2 million went to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a nonprofit that supports programs that drive innovation in journalism. The Knight Foundation used half of its grant to augment the Knight News Challenge, a media innovation contest that recognized 16 winners in 2011. [Official Google Blog, Oct. 26, 2010, June 22, 2011]

Google and the Associated Press are offering six $20,000 scholarships to journalism students to encourage and enable innovation in digital journalism. The Online News Association, the world’s largest membership organization of digital journalists, will administer the program. [OfficialGoogleBlog, Aug. 15, 2011]

Google Books Helps People Discover Books, Benefiting Users, Authors and Publishers

Google Books helps readers find information and gives authors and publishers a new way to be found. For instance, the Google Books Partner Program enables publishers to promote their books online for free — so that users can search through them, and find out where to buy them or get them from a library. More than 40,000 partners have joined the Partner Program, including nearly every major U.S. publisher. [GoogleBooksBlog, May 23, 2011]

Google will work to make more of the world’s books discoverable online. The March 2011 decision by Judge Denny Chin to reject the Google Books settlement was disappointing, but Google is reviewing the Court’s decision and considering various options. We believe this agreement has the potential to open up access to millions of books that are currently hard to find in the US today. [GoogleBooksAgreement]

Google Helps Rights Holders Manage Their Presence on YouTube

YouTube created Content ID to help rights holders manage their content on YouTube. Managing rights for content owners on YouTube has been important since the site’s early days. In 2007, this strategy led to the creation of a new technology called Content ID. Content ID is a full set of audio and video matching tools that give rights holders fine-grained controls for managing their content if someone uploads it to YouTube. Rights holders have the option of blocking, tracking, or making money from videos containing their content. More than 100 million videos have been claimed with Content ID. [YouTubeBlog, Dec. 2, 2010]

Content ID helps rights holders monetize their content. More than 1,000 partners use Content ID. Rights holders who claim their content with Content ID generally more than double the number of views against which YouTube can run ads, which doubles the rights holders’ potential revenue. Content ID contributes more than a third of YouTube’s monetized views each week. [YouTubeBlog, Dec. 2, 2010]

YouTube won its copyright case against Viacom. In June 2010, a federal court decided against Viacom in its copyright infringement lawsuit against YouTube. The court ruled that YouTube is protected by the safe harbor of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act if it works cooperatively with copyright holders to help them manage their rights online. [OfficialGoogleBlog, June 23, 2010]

Google Does Not Block Other Search Engines from Crawling YouTube

Bing and Yahoo both display YouTube videos on their search engine results pages. A search for [rebecca black friday] on Bing and Yahoo displays the YouTube video as the fourth result on Bing (following two Wikipedia entries and a Bing Images result) and as the third result on Yahoo (following two Wikipedia entries). [Bing | Yahoo]

                                  

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Doin’ Well by Doin’ Good: Fannie Mae and the Press

Even as it’s come under the inevitable attack by ideologues of the left, and even a few on the right, the lessons in New York Times reporter Gretchen Morgenson’s book, Reckless Endangerment, resonate. More than this, they provide the stuff for some interesting speculation, none more important, for those of us in “medialand,” than this: Why didn’t the media shine a bright light on the perfidy of Fannie Mae and its “paid clappers” in academia and Congress (people like Joseph Stiglitz and Barney Frank) before now?

Could it be, as one may infer from what Morgenson reports, because the company at the center of the story had contrived to promote itself – in language that was politically correct but deeply misleading – as a high-minded enabler of home ownership for minority and lower-income citizens?

And if it’s true that investigative and political reporters, working for mainstream news organizations, were anesthetized by that kind of sloganeering, even in a case as egregious as the Fannie Mae fiasco, why would anyone think that “progressive” nonprofit news organizations would cover such a story – then, now, or in the future?  Organizations, for instance, like ProPublica that, founded, chaired, and bankrolled by a man as liberal as he is wealthy, sees its mission as “shining a light on the exploitation of the weak by the strong.”

For the benefit of those who haven’t yet read it, Reckless Endangerment is, most importantly, the story of the role in the country’s economic meltdown played by the government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) known as Fannie Mae.

Created in 1938 to assist borrowers in buying homes during the waning days of the Great Depression, decades later Fannie Mae would become, in Morgenson’s words, “the largest and most powerful financial institution in the world.”  And size wasn’t its only defining characteristic.

Under the venal leadership of its former CEO, James Johnson, and his corrupt successor, Franklin Raines, Fannie Mae became the very embodiment of crony capitalism: an outfit that used its (predominantly Democratic) political muscle to gain competitive advantage and to ward off every attempt at reining in its imprudent business practices, all while hugely rewarding its senior executives. (For his service as CEO in the ’90s, James Johnson took home $100 million.) The upshot of it all?  In 2008, the Federal Housing Finance Agency took conservatorship of Fannie Mae, at a cost to taxpayers (to date, and counting) of $150 billion.

This and much more is told in stomach-turning detail in Reckless Endangerment, and as is often the case with books of great moment, it has sparked numerous discussions, some about its primary thesis, and some about matters of secondary importance.

Not to be out-marginalized, and as suggested at the outset, the interest here is with an aspect of the thing that might be said to be of “tertiary importance," connected to “Fanniegate” only obliquely: namely, what the press coverage (or more precisely, lack of coverage) of Fannie Mae suggests about future stories and the relevance of nonprofit news organizations, particularly those in the “investigative news” business.

Nonprofit news organizations are all the rage these days.  We know this because the J-schools, journalism reviews, journalism-funding foundations, and the deep thinkers at places like Politico tell us so. Indeed, there are those (most of whom are on the payroll of the movement’s principal sugar daddy, the Knight Foundation) who argue that, because of the tough times at for-profit media, the nonprofits are indispensable keepers of the journalistic flame.

It says a lot that many of the same people who sing the praises of nonprofit organizations also advocate a larger role for government in the affairs of the media. Even as “local news” and “investigative” reporting need the input of nonprofits, they argue, the nonprofits themselves need help from the government, whether in the form of much larger contributions to NPR and PBS, or such things as federal tax credits for investigative journalism.

But because, as mentioned in an earlier blog, virtually all of the nonprofit groups bring to their work a history, a mindset, a funding base, and/or a mission statement that venerates government policies that are said to be “helping people,” when such policies go wrong they are invisible to these same nonprofits.

This is true not just of issues like the corruption of Fannie Mae, but of myriad other issues, among which are some of the most pressing problems in the country today.  Things, for instance, like the Ponzi schemes that governments at all levels have been running in broad daylight with their unbalanced budgets and debt issuance. Investigative reporters could write a different piece once a week for a year or two about examples of this in the states, municipalities, and at the federal level

Or what about the ruinous effect on state and municipal finance of public employee unions’ pay and retirement packages? Or the extraordinary expense, spread across so many industries, of ambulance-chasing trial lawyers?  Or the disastrous dependency, forged after decades of government support, of people trapped in the inner cities – areas that are these days so depraved and dysfunctional Charles Dickens wouldn’t recognize them?

Concerning these and many other issues, there is no reason to believe that nonprofit news organizations out there today would show any greater interest than have the mainstream for-profit media. They largely ignored the monstrosity that was Fannie Mae when their “investigative reports” might have made a difference, and because of their prevailing mindset they will in all likelihood ignore all other issues displaying a kindred pathology.

                                  

 The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Matthew & Rush & Glenn & Andrew

For those numerous consumers of news and opinion whose political views are right-of-center, the ideology and ubiquity of people like Glenn Beck, Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and Andy Breitbart are a breath of fresh air.  Apart from the serious stuff, some of what they do – like Breitbart roller blading through a crowd of progressive protesters, or Drudge boasting of the MSM’s efforts to get a link on his website (“they kiss the ring”) – is fun.

More than this, all four have demonstrated a substantial talent for creating commercially successful journalistic products.  In 2009, for instance, the financial website 24/7wallst.com estimated that the Drudge Report was worth $46 million.  Given that the same report, though, suggested the Huffington Post was worth only $96 million, whereas AOL paid $315 million for it just two years later, the Drudge estimate is undoubtedly on the low side.

Their personal attributes notwithstanding, however, the simple truth is that none of these gentlemen, alone or together, provides a substitute for mainstream journalism or a cure for what ails it.  In part this is because all of them engage in opinion rather than reporting – and in Drudge’s case not even his own opinion but that found in the content he aggregates.  But it’s also because, like their liberal counterparts, they address issues solely from within their own ideological constructs, with predictable if sometimes bizarre results.

Take, for instance, Glenn Beck’s absurd suggestion that Sen. Scott Brown’s joking reference to his single daughters’ “availability” was tantamount to “pimping them out.”  Or Andrew Breitbart’s careless or deliberate distortion of the words of Shirley Sherrod.  Or, these days, of the prevalence on the Drudge Report of overwrought headlines that mislead about the content of the articles to which they’re linked.

There is a place for opinion journalism, and for conservative opinion, but the great journalistic need today is for mainstream, objective news reporting.  Indeed, it is the perceived absence of objectivity among the MSM that has created the market for conservative opinion, not just among the four individuals mentioned above but in talk radio generally, at Fox News, and on the Internet.

Which is not to say that this fact is widely acknowledged.  Actually it’s never acknowledged by those people and institutions, such as J-school professors and journalists themselves, who instead follow the lead of the grant-giving groups, like the Knight Foundation, whose munificent gifts set and pay for the journalism establishment’s agenda.

So instead of spotting the journalistic elephant in the room, which is the perceived lack of objectivity (bias, to use the word most commonly employed), the journalism reviews and media critics are uniformly pushing these days the notion that journalism’s greatest need is for more “localism” and “investigative journalism.”  And if the MSM were seen to be objective players in the news business these would be good and timely ideas.  But given that they are not seen that way, the question becomes who would read or watch such stuff, or believe it if they did?

Though the mainstream media’s problems are frequently conflated, there are at least two severable parts to the whole: the business problems, which derive from the damage inflicted on the MSM’s advertising revenue by the Internet generally (and Google specifically); and those strictly journalistic problems, only some of which are a consequence of business problems that have led to downsizing.

Management of the MSM have been slow to come to grips with their business problems, but even slower to deal with their biggest journalistic problem.  Whether this is because they share and approve of the perceived bias in their newsrooms, or because of the firewall that separates the business and editorial sides at most news organizations, the damage to the MSM, to professional journalism, and to the country is palpable – and not at all relieved by the growth of the conservative commentariat.

                                  

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

 

Nonprofit ‘Investigative’ Journalism: A Distraction (and Worse)

As noted here, the recently released FCC report on the future of journalism has effectively put the kibosh on the “media reform” crowd’s dream of government intervention to “save journalism.”  Likely gone forever are such schemes as a federal tax credit for investigative journalism, or an AmeriCorps-like “Geek Corps for local democracy.”

But there’s another element of the “reformers’” agenda that is still alive and kicking, and that is the rise of so-called nonprofit journalism, i.e. the creation, as nonprofit organizations, of “investigative” journalism groups, like ProPublica, which research and write feature stories that are then peddled for publication (or publicity) to for-profit, and often mainstream, media companies like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press.

At a time when so many news organizations, newspapers especially, are laying off reporters, concern about the future of journalism is neither wrong nor untimely, and when compared to the inherent evils in direct (or indirect) government funding of journalism, the nonprofits’ activities are orders of magnitude more benign.

This said, even a cursory review of this cottage industry reveals deep flaws that aren’t, in the main, even being discussed.  Two in particular stand out: (1) Virtually without exception these groups are funded by left-of-center individuals and foundations – funding that is reflected in the groups’ mission statements and/or in the material they publish; and (2) the nonprofit groups’ relationship with for-profit outlets reveals a business plan on the part of the former that relies utterly on the existence  of the latter, thereby vitiating claims that the nonprofit groups are any kind of “solution” to what ails the media.

A piece recently published in Politico shines some (unintended) light on the problem.  Titled “Liberal Journalism’s Fickle Godfather,” the article tasks PBS commentator Bill Moyers – who also heads a grant-giving foundation – for not staying long enough in financial support of some liberal nonprofit startups that subsequently folded.

In between quotes from disgruntled grant recipients dropped by Moyers’s foundation (the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy), the author of the piece recounts some recent history of such organizations, including a few survivors, and sums things up this way:

“Earlier this month, the FCC released the results of a year-long survey of this destruction and recommended that philanthropy play a bigger role in supporting journalism.  But so far, few foundations are set up to provide the ongoing support that journalism organizations really need.”

Well, okay, if Politico says so it must be true, right?  But there is this: Every nonprofit mentioned in the piece as doing “investigative journalism” derives virtually all of its financial support from liberal grant-giving foundations.

Take, for instance, the Center for Public Integrity, said by Politico to have “a diverse funding base.” In fact, the Center’s funding base is “diverse” only in the sense that there’s more than one contributor.  Otherwise, virtually every group shown (on Wikipedia) to be in support of the Center is a liberal grant-giving foundation.  Though not all of them give the same proportion of their funding to nonprofit journalism groups like the Center for Public Integrity, the media programs they do fund are resolutely left-of-center.

There is, one hastens to say, nothing intrinsically wrong with committing liberalism (of course there’s nothing right with it, either), but kidding aside, when the whole of the nonprofit journalism community is funded by such as George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, or the MacArthur Foundation, or the Tides Foundation, or the Knight, Ford, or Schumann foundations, and manned by the kind of people, and/or with the kind of mission, as at the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Investigative Reporting, or the Center for Public Integrity, there is the risk (how to put this gently?) that the resultant investigations will be “one-sided.”

Of course this isn’t a problem for everybody, and certainly not for Politico, but it really is a problem – though not yet widely recognized as such – for the participating mainstream media.

About a year ago I was given the unpleasant task of participating on an ABA panel with the general manager of the newest kid on the block, the nonprofit investigative group called ProPublica.  Founded, chaired, and bankrolled by the billionaire and uber liberal Herbert Sandler, ProPublica’s editor is Paul Steiger, formerly with the Wall Street Journal, on whose watch the organization has won two Pulitzer prizes.

According to published reports, Mr. Steiger’s total compensation in 2009 was just under $600K, so it’s not clear if he joined ProPublica because he believes in its stated mission (“shining a light on the exploitation of the weak by the strong”), or for more pedestrian reasons, but whatever the case the point of conflict between me and ProPublica’s general manager back then was his argument that it was possible for journalists to separate their work and opinions from those of their employers.  The example the gentleman gave was of the management of The Wall Street Journal and its reporters.

As I subsequently wrote, this argument doesn’t compute because a for-profit media manager’s job (as at the WSJ) is to make money, not politics, whereas the investigative nonprofit manager’s job is just the opposite. Indeed, this argument is akin to the tired old nonsense, spouted for decades by certain editors, that the political affiliation of their reporters – even where, say, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine or ten to one – doesn’t color their journalistic product.  Of course it doesn’t.

So at a time when the perceived bias of the MSM is driving people en masse into the arms of such as Matt Drudge, Andrew Breitbart, and Glenn Beck (and how “progressive” is that?), the collaboration of mainstream media with the uniformly liberal nonprofit journalism groups threatens to hasten that emigration.  And as suggested at the beginning of this piece, even this isn’t the only problem with nonprofit journalism.

The other problem is that, unlike the ersatz “reforms” (of which nonprofit journalism is but one) promoted by such as the Knight Foundation, there are some real initiatives being undertaken by individuals and organizations – including media companies themselves – who have not given up on the MSM or for-profit journalism, and are trying very hard to find ways to compensate for the extraordinary loss of advertising that is at the root of the crisis in medialand.

Broadcasters, for instance, are hoping to adapt to the new realities through the development of such things as multicast digital channels and mobile DTV, while print companies, like The New York Times and the Dallas Morning News, are rolling out online subscription pricing plans in an attempt to generate more revenue.

And they are not alone.  Other informed people, like certain members of the communications bar, are trying to lend a hand.  Take, for instance, the highly regarded media and First Amendment attorney Bruce Sanford, who has written and testified about prospective changes in copyright, ownership, and antitrust laws as would provide a more level playing field for the commercial mainstream media.

At the end of the day it’s this – the contrast between the hopes and plans of those who have not given up on the media versus those who have, and would now turn it into an industry reliant on the government, or nonprofit groups with an agenda – that frames the other problem with nonprofit journalism: It’s a time-consuming and expensive distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

Even if, as often seems to be the case, the real motive behind the promotion of nonprofit journalism is the rescue of the recently (or soon-to-be) unemployed, dressed up in the rhetoric of “saving the news,” it amounts to little more than a gesture in the larger scheme of things.

Even if it were a more ideologically even-handed enterprise, nonprofit investigative journalism is not now, and never will be, either a solution to the problems of, or an obviation of the need for, mainstream, professional, and for-profit media.

                                 

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

 

Dodging a Bullet: The FCC’s Report on the Future of the Media

Seventeen months ago the FCC teed up what until last Thursday was known as the “Future of Media” project.  For all practical purposes the project’s report, now called “The Information Needs of Communities,” is likely to be forgotten in half that time.

On the face of it this sounds like a criticism.  Far from it!  For its thoroughness and level-headed analysis, and especially for its acknowledgment of the constitutional limits on governmental involvement in the media, this report, and its principal personnel – most notably the man brought in to oversee the effort, Steven Waldman – are owed a debt of gratitude.

Before this project began there arose a powerful network comprised of ideologically motivated activist groups like Free Press; academic institutions and their publications, like Columbia University’s CJR; and deep-pocketed grant-giving groups, most importantly the Knight Foundation; all in the vanguard of what is euphemistically called the “media reform” movement.

And as Chairman Genachowski himself acknowledged, it was the work of these players – most notably the Knight Commission (a creation of the Knight Foundation, which two years earlier released a similarly titled report) that prompted the FCC’s own project.

So with this as its provenance, who would have been surprised if the report had embraced the media reform crowd’s recommendations?  But, mirabile dictu, it did not!  Instead, the report effectively dismisses the worst aspects of the media reformers’ governmental agenda.  Missing or explicitly rejected, for instance, are increased funding of public broadcasting, a “Geek Corps” for local democracy (patterned after AmeriCorps), federal tax credits for investigative journalism, and calls for a halt to media consolidation.

In fact, one of the few “action elements” in the report was a call for less government regulation.  As remarked by media reporter John Eggerton, the report “recommended scrapping the FCC’s ascertainment rules … as well as closing the localism proceeding without taking steps like creating community advisory boards to weigh in on public interest programming.”

There are those of us who believed that it was a mistake for the FCC to engage in this project at all – first out of conviction that the FCC had no authority to venture so far afield, and second out of fear that the report might provide the impetus for intrusive and unconstitutional regulations or legislation.  But in light of what the project report says, and doesn’t say, the feeling now is that some good will come of it.

After all, the “media reformers” will never have a better setup than they had here. With a Democratic majority on the Commission, a substantial infrastructure of activists and their financial enablers, and a media industry that is in fact struggling, if ever there were a time when the reformers’ wish lists might find policy traction this was it.  And now they have their reward: an exhaustive report that almost completely ignores that part of their agenda requiring governmental action.

During the Clinton era, many of the same kind of people who today support media reform helped man a presidential commission that came to be known as the Gore Commission.  Its focus was on the “public interest obligations of broadcasters in the digital age.”  And like the agenda of today’s media reformers, it encouraged government action in ways that undermined the First Amendment.

In the end, the Gore Commission produced its own report, a document that was as dense as it was feckless, and the whole enterprise sank from public consciousness almost immediately – as well it should have, since it produced nothing of value.  The guess here is that the FCC’s Information Needs of Communities report will also sink from public consciousness – not because it lacks value (its scholarship and usefulness as a research document are undeniable, for instance), but because it wisely steered clear of recommendations advanced by the more feral elements within the media reform community – people, for instance, like Commissioner Copps, a long-time spear carrier in that army, who immediately released an impassioned denunciation of the report.

Had the report endorsed radical (and preposterous) things, like a federal tax credit for investigative journalism, it would have attracted more ink, and been the subject of conversation far longer.  But it’s a credit to its authors, and to Chairman Genachowski, that it did not do so, because it shows they possess both a realistic view of the scope of the FCC’s limited authority and a healthy respect for the First Amendment.

                                  

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.

Funding Net Neutrality … And Worse

There are so many things wrong with the FCC’s codified “net neutrality” rules, the kindest thing one can say about those responsible is that they were all born yesterday.  But criticism of this monstrosity abounds already, and given the potential for it to be wholly or partly undone by the courts or Congress, no further discussion of its many flaws is either timely or necessary.

Just before Christmas, however, John Fund wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal that ought to be required reading for every media and communications mogul in America.  Titled “The Net Neutrality Coup,” Fund recounts the role played by a handful of large grant-giving foundations, and the beneficiaries of their largesse (“paid clappers,” in Ted Turner’s immortal phrase) in the promotion of this cynical creation of the “media reform” movement.

Perhaps the greatest value in Fund’s piece is his finding that most of those foundations that provided the lion’s share of funding for net neutrality were also among the biggest sources of funding for the earlier (and even worse) mischief, “campaign finance reform.”

Fund identifies by name a total of six grant-giving foundations and four operating organizations.  They are, among the former: the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Joyce Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation.

The four operating groups are Free Press, Public Knowledge, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the New America Foundation.  What all of these groups – funders and recipients alike – share in common is that, to varying degrees, they are all liberal-leaning, or “progressive,” as they yearn to be called nowadays.

Missing from this list is another billion-dollar grant-giving group – the Knight Foundation – which, through the Knight Commission, has itself peddled  net neutrality, along with such pap as the need for greater funding of public broadcasting, and tax credits for investigative journalism.  Though we won’t know for sure until its report is issued, the FCC appears to have adopted the Knight Commission’s recommendations as a kind of blueprint in its approach to the commission’s so-called Future of Media initiative.

The reason all of this should be of the greatest importance to everyone, but particularly to titans of media and communications, is simple: The communications policy views of grant-making groups like the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation (not to mention Free Press) are inimical to the well being of media and communications companies.

It’s not entirely clear why the “progressive” moneybags’ lavish spending has not incited individuals with different political views, many of whom have amassed great wealth in the media and communications business, to fund non-profit organizations with more pro-business communications policy views.  Perhaps it’s because some of them, having gotten theirs and now in retirement, no longer care much what happens to the industry of which they were once a part.  Or maybe it’s because many don’t think of themselves, or want others to think of them, as “conservatives,” whatever that means in the context of communications policymaking.

But a likelier explanation is that many fail to understand what a threat to their own and their industry’s welfare some of these groups actually pose.  Perhaps because businessmen are very good at lobbying, and understand the ins and outs of PACs, they don’t see the need to engage their critics in the worlds of academia or think tankery.

It’s a mistake, that, because in truth it’s the people who deal in ideas – intellectuals and artists, activists and policy wonks – who are often the engines in the development of policy issues in which legislators and regulators are but the last people to board the train.  Witness, for instance, net neutrality.

As John Fund puts it, in the conclusion of his WSJ piece, “So the ‘media reform’ movement paid for research that backed its views, paid activists to promote the research, saw its allies installed in the FCC and other key agencies, and paid for the FCC research that evaluated the research they had already paid for.  Now they have their policy.  That’s quite a coup.”

                                                
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.