The Intrinsic Menace in ‘Media Reform’

Christian theologians refer to the first three books of the New Testament as the synoptic gospels.  This, because of their similarities in content and order.  The new religion of “media reform,” whose principal tenet is that government needs to “save” journalism, is developing its own synoptic gospels – the gospel according to the Knight Foundation, Free Press, and just now rounding into view, the FCC.

For those who, until now, have enjoyed the luxury of knowing little about the handiwork of this threesome, a few words are in order:

The Knight Foundation (the vestigial remains of the defunct Knight-Ridder newspaper empire) is one of the country’s largest grant-giving foundations, with assets in the neighborhood of $2 billion.  Like Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" ("I won’t be ignored, Dan"), the Knight Foundation is not going away.

Through its gifts to educational and nonprofit organizations, the foundation funds journalism programs as its “signature work.”  It recently joined forces with the Aspen Institute to create the Knight Commission, the product of whose labor is the recently released report on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy (not to be confused with the information needs of community Democrats), an opus that, as reported here, is trivial and irrelevant, about 50-50.

Free Press is the absurd name of a paleoleftist organization that sees government influence over the media as a way to advance its larger political views, a point made both explicitly and inadvertently in the published opinions of the group’s founder and Maximum Leader, Professor Robert McChesney.  Free Press (or its lobbying arm, the Free Press Action Fund) convenes national “media reform” conferences; encourages laws and regulations that aim to increase the role of public media and reduce that of the commercial media; and coins amusingly infantile slogans like “Net neutrality: the First Amendment of the Internet.”

The FCC, of course, is the regulatory agency with sway over the affairs of the media, which, under chairman Julius Genachowski, has embarked on a number of “media reform” initiatives that parallel, if they aren’t in actual collaboration with, those of Free Press and the Knight Foundation.

Genachowski, for instance, was presented with a copy of the Knight Commission report at a publication ceremony at the Newseum, and in an interview with Broadcasting & Cable, the head of the FCC’s Future of Media initiative made explicit reference to the Knight Commission in answer to a question about what form his recommendations would take.

So what “media reform” policy positions do these organizations share?  As shown in their own comments or testimony, that of groups they fund, and/or that of others writing about them, at least three items can be identified.  They favor “net neutrality,” increased funding for public media, and an expanded role, through explicit tax breaks or other changes in the tax laws, for nonprofit organizations.

Looked at one at a time, and from a distance, none of these may seem like an unreasonable objective.  But taken together, and examined closely, they constitute a profound assault on some of our most cherished ideals about the media and its role in our national affairs.

Take “net neutrality,” for instance.  In both the literal and figurative sense of the term, network neutrality is the condition that obtains today.  Nobody is being favored or denied by ISPs of anything worth talking about.  But the proponents of net neutrality don’t want to leave well enough alone.  At the prospective cost of a reduced build-out of the broadband infrastructure (and the guaranteed intrusion of government into the affairs of the hitherto unregulated Internet), Free Press, the Knight Foundation, and the FCC want to codify and extend the Commission’s so-called Internet principles.

But by putting the camel’s nose of government under the tent of the Internet, codified net neutrality regulations would threaten the independence of the freest communications sector in the country, and thereby pose a direct challenge to both the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, as well briefed by constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe.

Proposals to change the tax laws so as to permit for-profit media companies to operate, in whole or in part, as nonprofits, or to explicitly authorize gifts to commercial media from nonprofit grant-giving foundations, or (as the Knight Commission recommends) to provide tax credits for investigative journalism, are similarly problematical.

As with net neutrality, the threat in amending the tax laws along these lines is that by doing so one lets the fox in the hen house.  How, for instance, would it be possible to insulate the media from charges of bias, and the concomitant threats to their tax-exempt status, when their political coverage offended one party or the other?  Might this not have the practical, if not the intended, effect of reducing the amount and kind of political coverage, like candidate endorsements?

Calls for greater funding of public media like NPR and PBS, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, are not so much constitutionally objectionable as they are ludicrously untimely.  Here we are as a nation, teetering on the brink of insolvency and with millions unemployed, and the recommendation is that we spend more taxpayer dollars on… public broadcasting?  Even without obliging PBS stations to commit suicide by requiring them to reorient their news programming toward local news (as all of the media reform advocates recommend), surely this idea is going nowhere soon.

Nor should it. News coverage by the public media in the United States represents a tiny, and because of that tolerable, adjunct to the vastly more important commercial media, whose independence from government is the sine qua non of its editorial independence.

Whatever one’s qualms or fears about the media of the future, the importance of independent (read: commercial) media is clear.  For this reason, the crisis in “medialand” is no cause to throw the baby out with the bath water, particularly where the “solutions” offered – like those of the media reform crowd – ignore decades of experience in the way the world works.

There are some people who understand this and some who don’t, but should.  An example of the former is FCC Commissioner McDowell who, in obvious discomfort by the direction the agency’s media initiative appears headed, has questioned the “constitutional, legal, and policy implications” of any government effort to “preserve or change journalism.”

Those who, in large numbers, do not get it include much of the “netroots nation” and progressives generally.  But here’s an exercise that might provide a cure for this.  Imagine a time, not too many years in the future, when the GOP controls the presidency, the House, and the Senate.  The Republican president has appointed a majority of the commissioners at the FTC and the FCC, and has, like all presidents, substantial influence with the independent agencies.

In this environment, how confident would progressives be that the Republicans would not attempt to use the FCC’s oversight of the Internet, as established through the years-earlier codification of net neutrality rules, or sway over the committees of Congress (and through it of the CPB), to influence the content of the media, commercial and public?

It is, of course, a rhetorical question.

First published here on The Huffington Post, Feb. 22, 2010.