Digital Technology: Double-Edged Sword

Two items in the Washington Post in the past three days point up how the relentless march of technology will affect news in the months to come – both how it is generated by the White House, and how it is reported by at least one local TV station.

President-Elect Barack Obama sees new technology as a means “to reinvigorate our democracy,” according to senior adviser David Axelrod.  And, as Chris Cillizza reported on Dec. 14, Obama is starting with the Saturday morning radio broadcast begun by Ronald Reagan in 1982.  

“The speech is still beamed out to radio stations nationwide on Saturday mornings, but now it is also recorded for digital video and audio downloads from YouTube, iTunes and the like, so people can access it whenever and wherever they want,” Cillizza reports.

It’s part of a “broader revolution” in how the Obama White House will communicate, according to Doug Sosnik, a senior aide in the Clinton Administration. "The mainframe for this White House will be the Internet, not TV," he told Cillizza.

Only two days earlier (Dec. 12.), Paul Farhi reported that WUSA-TV, Channel 9 in Washington, D.C., had reached a new labor agreement that would scrap the traditional two-person news crew of reporter and photographer.  Under the new pact, an individual “multimedia journalist” will report, shoot, and edit stories alone using digital tools.  Reporters will double as their own camera crew.  Camera operators will take on reporting tasks as well.

In the case of WUSA, however, the impetus is economic. The one-person operatives are part of a broad budget-cutting scheme under which these “multimedia journalists” will actually be paid less than current reporters.

It’s encouraging that Obama embraces digital technology and plans to use it extensively.  At the same time, it’s ironic that digital technology has siphoned viewers from broadcast television and weakened some local news operations to the point where they can only be saved by changes in news-gathering built around … digital technology.

Fairness Doctrine: The Talk Goes On

The Fairness Doctrine, or at least talk of a reimposed Fairness Doctrine, just won’t go away.  It was finally killed off in 1987 but the current Democratic Congress has been making periodic noises about bringing it back.

The big question now seems to be what would happen under a President Obama.  Would he actively support a return of the doctrine?  Would he accede to a Congress controlled by his Democratic friends who put a Fairness Doctrine bill in front of him?  Would he dare (or bother) to go against his congressional allies and veto such a bill?

All we know for sure has been ferreted out by the hard-working John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable.  He reported back on June 25 that Obama’s press secretary, Michael Ortiz, told him that "Sen. Obama does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters," and that the candidate sees the issue as “a distraction from the conversation we should be having about opening up the airwaves and modern communications to as many diverse viewpoints as possible."

On Sept. 18, however, George Will opined that an Obama-led government would bring back the Fairness Doctrine.  Will wrote:

“Until Ronald Reagan eliminated it in 1987, that regulation discouraged freewheeling political programming by the threat of litigation over inherently vague standards of ‘fairness’ in presenting ‘balanced’ political views.  In 1980 there were fewer than 100 radio talk shows nationwide.  Today there are more than 1,400 stations entirely devoted to talk formats.  Liberals, not satisfied with their domination of academia, Hollywood and most of the mainstream media, want to kill talk radio, where liberals have been unable to dent conservatives’ dominance.”

Will’s comments have stirred the pot once again, particularly among right-leaning blogs where much of the speculation and hand-wringing takes place.

In support of Will’s assertion are two factors.  The first is that Obama need not actively support a reimposition of the doctrine to sign a bill pushed by his fellow Democrats.  The second is that his press secretary also told Eggerton that Obama supports “media-ownership caps, network neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets" – in other words, the traditional Democratic media-policy platform in which the Fairness Doctrine plank would fit snugly.

The Fairness Doctrine was a bad idea for a lot of reasons.  It should be allowed to rest in peace.  Sen. McCain gets that, and has co-sponsored legislation to keep it dead.  Sen. Obama says he opposes a new Fairness Doctrine.

Yet George Will can be a hard person to bet against.  In the case of Obama and the Fairness Doctrine, however, I’m hoping Will is wrong.

The Real Problem With Radio

Washington radio icon Chris Core was given the boot in February after 33 years behind the microphone at WMAL-AM in the Nation’s Capital.  He was part of a cost-cutting move by the station’s owners, who also fired the entire on-air staff of sister station WJZW-FM.

Marc Fisher, a Washington Post reporter who had written “The Listener” radio column since 1995, wrote his final column and signed off June 1, as he lamented the passing of “the kind of eccentric, iconoclastic voices that made radio so alluring from the 1950s into the ’80s.”  Now, Fisher says, the talent is “mostly anonymous and amateur.”  The implication: Radio in the Washington, D.C., market isn’t worth writing about anymore.

Critics of “media concentration” will be quick to seize on the tales of Core and Fisher to “prove” that big is bad.  They will tell us that the multiple-station ownership practiced by big companies like Clear Channel and Citadel (which now owns WMAL) is the root cause of all that is wrong with radio today, from the loss of “localism” to the homogenization of programming.

Unfortunately, these critics will be exactly wrong.  Media concentration is not the cause of radio’s problems – it is an effect of something else entirely: the fragmentation of audiences that has come about as exploding technology has given the public a whole new panoply of delivery platforms.

Listeners (and especially young listeners) are getting their audio fix via satellite radio, Internet radio, cell phones, and PDAs, and can create their own mix on iPods and MP3 players.  Don’t forget free HD radio and, soon, free Internet radio in cars.  The always-philosophical Core recognizes that “radio stations have to either evolve from their traditional ways or wither.” 

Kenneth J. Goldstein, president of Communications Management Inc., presciently observes that fragmentation not only is the cause of consolidation (as station owners try to re-aggregate audiences), but also of cost pressures, less localism, content sharing, and stretching the boundaries of taste. 

Regrettably, policymakers are being bombarded with the big-is-bad “concentration myth” by critics of multiple ownership.  However, until policymakers understand the issue correctly (i.e., realize that media consolidation is merely one effect of technology-driven fragmentation), the debate is fated to be an uninformed waste of time.  And any policy “solutions” that spring from such a spurious debate are almost sure to be catastrophic.

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