Media ‘Reform’ and the First Amendment

Despite their general lack of experience or expertise in law, commerce, finance, or technology, people with journalistic backgrounds are these days testifying before Congress and regulatory agencies, sponsoring seminars, and writing papers in a broadly coordinated effort to influence laws and regulations that govern the media.

They are doing this, they say, out of a concern for the “future of journalism,” but to the extent that policymakers act on the journalists’ recommendations they may do damage to the commercial media, old and new, and great violence to the First Amendment.

For the most part, journalists’ understanding of and support for the First Amendment is limited to their parochial interests.  They want access to government information, protection from libel laws, and the right not to have to reveal their sources.

As it happens, all of those things are of benefit not just to journalists but also to the news-consuming public, which is why legislation creating a federal shield law for reporters, to give one example, is a good idea.  But the point remains: Reporters and the commentariat generally have a very blinkered view of the scope of the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

This explains why journalists report and opine so infrequently on the myriad First Amendment issues that impact people and institutions other than themselves.  Things, for instance, like commercial speech.

State and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have adjudicated many cases wherein they have ruled that advertising and other kinds of promotional speech is entitled to First Amendment protection, but these cases are rarely covered, other than in the media trade press, to any significant degree.

In similar fashion reporters – aside from such notable exceptions as George Will – have raised very few objections, along First Amendment or any other lines, to the speech-curtailing aspects of so-called campaign finance reform, as in McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on issue ads.

Nor have they objected much to the “speech codes” that have been implemented on so many college campuses, or to the right of government to regulate the media in ways, as with some of the broadcasters’ “public interest” obligations, where such regulations have the practical effect of undermining the broadcasters’ editorial freedom.

As with commercial speech, all of these issues implicate the First Amendment, and all have been considered by the courts as such issues, but not to the interest or concern of many reporters.

Given this track record it’s shocking but not surprising, as the saying goes, that journalists are these days recommending so many ill-considered ways that government might “save” or “restructure” American journalism.

There are a number of examples of this trend, like Dan Rather’s embarrassing speech last year at an Aspen Institute symposium, where he asked President Obama to create a government commission to “save journalism,” or the recommendations of the risibly clueless Knight Commission, with its recent call for a “federal tax credit for the support of investigative journalism” and creation of a “Geek Corps for Local Democracy.”

But the mother lode of the literature in promotion of this unfortunate movement is a lengthy piece published last year in the Columbia Journalism Review.  Titled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” the article was co-authored by Michael Schudson, a Columbia University journalism professor, and Leonard Downie, Jr., the former executive editor of The Washington Post.

Among their recommendations:

  • The IRS should explicitly authorize news organizations to be created or converted into nonprofit entities, regardless of their mix of financial support, including advertising.
  • Public radio and television should receive increased funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for which their programming should be “substantially reoriented” so as to provide significant local news reporting.
  • The FCC should create a “Fund for Local News” with money the Commission collects from fees imposed on broadcasters, telecom users, and/or Internet service providers, said funds to be distributed through grants from “Local News Fund Councils” to news organizations (commercial and nonprofit alike) that propose “worthy initiatives in local news reporting.”

Breathtaking.  And it begs the question: Is it too much to ask that a professor of journalism, and the former executive editor of a leading U.S. newspaper, have some understanding of the crucial need for a separation of government and the press?  Does it not occur to either of these gentlemen that it’s insufficient just to give lip service to that concept?

Though we live during a time when journalists spend more time reporting on corporate rather than governmental malfeasance, the greatest value of a free press is in its check on government.  The marketplace, after all, provides some control on the conduct of corporations (and particularly so where government regulators aren’t in bed with them) but without an independent and credible press there really is no check on government.

Journalists often speak, and wisely so, of “following the money trail.”  It’s a good practice, and one that immediately illuminates the profound error in any scheme that proposes to deliver funding from the government to the media.  It’s really pretty simple.  Where the media do not receive government funding – directly or indirectly – they are free to speak critically of the government without fear of a loss of revenue, a condition that is undone if they do receive funding.

Apart from the long-term effects, the mechanics of doling out government assistance itself invites abuse.  Take, for instance, the idea of taxpayer funds being funneled to the commercial press through the Orwellian-sounding “Local News Fund Councils.”  What kind of people, you might ask, would be appointed to serve on such councils?  The authors recommend journalists (?), educators, and diverse “community leaders.”  In practice what this would mean is a veritable Noah’s Ark of single-issue and special-interest groups (all of which would call themselves public interest groups) with strong political connections.  And woe to those would-be grant recipients who failed to successfully run the PC gauntlet laid down by this crew.

And what about those who did receive funding?  Well if, for instance, they happened to be broadcasters they could look forward to the day when their “Local News Fund Councils” hooked up to compare notes with their “Community Advisory Boards,” as some at the FCC are proposing be created.  Wouldn’t that be a great idea?  Democracy in action.

The headlines on some news stories suggest that schemes like these have appeal not just to “media reformers,” but to the very people that free press advocates should fear most: politicians.  Thus, from Reuters, this recent nugget: “Gov’t Will Need to Help Shape U.S. Media: Rep. Waxman”; and from Broadcasting & Cable: “FTC Will Team With FCC To Vet Journalism’s Future.”

Speaking before an FTC workshop in December, Rupert Murdoch made some remarks that ought to resonate with journalism professors and former editors.  Here is part of what he said:

“The future of journalism is more promising than ever – limited only by editors and producers unwilling to fight for their readers and viewers, or government using its heavy hand either to over-regulate us or subsidize us….

“In my view, the growing drumbeat for government assistance for newspapers is as alarming as overregulation.  One idea gaining in popularity is providing taxpayer funds for journalists.  Or giving newspapers ‘nonprofit status’ – in exchange, of course, for papers giving up their right to endorse political candidates….

“The prospect of the U.S. government becoming directly involved in commercial journalism ought to be chilling for anyone who cares about freedom of speech.”

Bad as the Schudson-Downie opus is on First Amendment grounds – and this is its worst aspect, to be sure – there are other problems, most importantly the commercial impact government subsidies would have on unsubsidized news organizations, whether old or new, that had to compete for readers, viewers, and advertisers with those who were subsidized, either directly or through tax breaks of one kind or another.

An example of this problem could arise in the prospects after launch of what is called mobile TV, or mobile DTV.  Made possible in part by broadcasters’ conversion from analog to digital transmission, the mobile TV service about to be test-marketed in Washington, D.C., will likely be free and interactive.

Consumer electronics companies and broadcasters, who are the principal players in the development of the technology, believe there may be a $2-billion market for it, gained through advertising.  If so, those funds would be helpful to an industry that has been reeling from the combined effects of the disastrous economy and competition from the Internet.

So here we have an industry – whose declining fortunes, along with those of newspapers, are most often cited as the reason for government to lend a hand – working to find a way to grow and prosper, without taxpayer dollars or other subsidies, as independent sources of news.

But standing on the sidelines are current and former journalists, and their financial enablers in the grant-making world, proposing to erect a national system as would invite competition from taxpayer-subsidized companies that would be crucially dependent on the goodwill of their governmental patrons.  Such is the idealism of journalism reformers and “reconstructors.”

Their perfunctory acknowledgment of the need to be wary of government funding notwithstanding (Schudson and Downie admit that “political pressure has played a role at times in the history of the arts and humanities endowments”), they show themselves to be pretty adept at knowing how to apply that pressure themselves.

Toward the end of their recommendation about the need for PBS to reorient its programming toward local news (through “significantly increased” appropriations for CPB), the authors write this: “The CPB should encourage changes in the leadership of public stations that are not capable of reorienting their missions.”

So in other words the plan here is that, if PBS stations won’t voluntarily submit to the kind of local news programming that Schudson and Downie want to see, the CPB should use its control over the purse strings to oust the management of those stations.

Yes, just so.  That’s it exactly.

First published here on The Huffington Post, Jan. 12, 2010.


The Knight Commission: Much Ado About Nothing

As in the title of the book about Southern belles, We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier, the report of the so-called Knight Commission, released on Oct. 2, is in some ways amusing and in other ways annoying.  It amuses in the way that it showcases the most pedestrian observations, as though they were the product of unique and weighty cerebration.  It annoys in the way that it pretends to a kind of grandeur and perspective – at precisely that moment in history when either would be useful – that it simply doesn’t possess.

Officially called the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, the Commission is a collaboration of the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation (assets pushing $2 billion), which paid for it all.  Early on the report makes clear that this is a commission with uncommon ambition and a high regard for itself.

Referring to the earlier Hutchins, Carnegie, and Kerner commissions, for instance, the Knight Commission co-chairs write: “In pursuing our work, we have been well aware that we are following in the path of other (emphasis added) distinguished Commissions.”  This, while a “background” document states that the Commission’s goal is to “start a national discussion – leading to real action.”

Given such a lofty calling one would expect the Commission’s observations to be trenchant and uniquely insightful.  One would be wrong.  From the foreword to the appendices, the Knight Commission report is a veritable cornucopia of the mundane, sortable into three categories: things that are already happening, and should be (like rapid broadband deployment by the private sector); things that are happening, and shouldn’t be (like the codification of the FCC’s net neutrality principles); and things that are not now happening and never will.

The best example of the latter comes in the Commission’s recommendation number 12 (of 15).  So as not to lose any of the rhetorical flavor of this recommendation, I quote parts of it verbatim: “Imagine,” they say, “a ‘Geek Corps for Local Democracy’ where, as a post-college opportunity, American youth volunteer to help connect a physical community to the networked infrastructure….  Geek Corps participants would teach community members how to use technology….  A Geek Corps would weave together the local and the national through networks of passionate youth.  Ideally, such a program would have the same stature as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, such that participants would be welcomed into jobs with open arms.”

Open, shmopen.  The notion that vast numbers of “post-college” American youth would (or should) line up for such a thing is the kind of idea that is dreamed up only by government bureaucrats – and nonprofit organizations that think like them.  How about getting or creating a job in the networked infrastructure, paying taxes, and buying things with whatever’s left over as might help the economy?

Speaking of rhetoric, that’s the other thing about the Knight Commission report.  Approximately every other paragraph, even the short ones, has the density of a black hole, so that after wandering into the first sentence you find yourself being stretched thin, like a strand of linguine, and by mid-graph frantically searching for a way out of the thing.

This said, if the only problems with the Knight Commission report were its immodesty, dense language, and commonplace insights, one could just ignore it completely and go about one’s business.  Unfortunately, however, the report is also marred by something else, specifically the timing and nature of its recommendations in the context of what is happening in the real world.

As it happens, on the very day that the Knight Commission released its report (on the premises of Freedom Forum’s Newseum, another billion-dollar foundation) the government announced that unemployment in the United States had reached 9.8 percent, and that more than 7 million people have lost their jobs since the onset of the current recession.

It is also a time when there is scarcely a state or municipality that is not on its financial uppers; when the national debt and federal deficit are at record highs; and when personal bankruptcies, home foreclosures, and credit card defaults are in the stratosphere and climbing.  To say that these data constitute an ongoing tragedy, and the deepest kind of threat to every person in this country, is not the tiniest exaggeration.

Enter into this environment a Knight Commission report whose recommendations are notable mostly for their exquisite attention to what, in the realm of communications policy, are little more than politically correct platitudes.  In this fashion, the report endorses things like governmental transparency, higher education, public libraries, broadband availability, net neutrality, diversity of media ownership, young people, old people, and ensuring that “every local community has at least one high-quality online hub.”  (If only there’d been an opportunity to say something about global warming.)

In other words, the Knight Commission report is frivolous and ill-timed.  This is the kind of report – with its recommendations of greater funding for public broadcasting, “public digital displays of news and culture,” a “federal tax credit for the support of investigative journalism,” and the aforementioned Geek Corps for Democracy – that should be released, if at all, only at a time when the country is so prosperous that people who should know better might actually go for it.

It didn’t have to be like this.  It would have been possible, even at this time, to create a commission that investigated the information needs of communities, in the context of our economic crisis, that was relevant and helpful.  It just didn’t happen.

To paraphrase Groucho Marx (“I’ve had a wonderful night, but this wasn’t it”), you can find some stimulating ideas about the future of journalism and the information needs of communities, but not in this report.

Dan Rather Has an Idea

According to stories in the Aspen Daily News and the Aspen Times, newspapers of record for the nation’s elite snowboarders, Dan Rather gave a speech at the Aspen Institute on Tuesday, asking that President Obama create a national commission to “save journalism.”

As one of the papers put it, without a skosh of irony, “Rather told an Aspen audience that journalism has declined to such a point that it is time for the government to intervene.”

Attributing the decline of "great American journalism" to “corporatization, politicization, and trivialization of the news,” Rather suggested that the commission “ought to make recommendations on saving journalism jobs and creating new business models to keep news organizations alive.”

"If we do nothing more than stand back and hope that innovation alone will solve this crisis," he said, "then our best-trained journalists will lose their jobs."

It’s not every day that one encounters such a rich vein of stuff.  Puts one in mind of the children’s illustrations that ask the question, what’s wrong with this picture?  So many upside-down daffodils and trees growing carrots.

First, you know, there’s the problem that some consider the author of this scheme himself to be a disgraced figure in the world of journalism, having lost his job at CBS for the role he played in the airing of a bogus report about President Bush.

Then there’s the (unintentionally) droll picture he conjures up of a presidential commission as a kind of jobs program for the rescue of threadbare journalists, and the linking of the employment status of some of them with the very survival of journalism itself.  

But the most grievous error — that aspect of the Jabberwocky that fairly leaps off the page — is the very suggestion that government is the solution to what ails the media today.  Make no mistake, there are governmental policies that could, and should, be changed (like, for instance, an end to the newspaper/broadcast cross ownership rules), but there is no need for a presidential commission or “media czar” for the purpose.

One would think that a former network anchorman would understand the peril inherent in any intervention by the government into the affairs of the press.  It is this, after all, that is the primary concern of the Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  What are the chances, for instance, that any such commission would use its mandate, and the media’s genuine agony, as cover to advance content regulations that parallel the commissioners’ political beliefs?

Speaking of his idea, Rather said that he was “throwing it out there for what it’s worth.”  Since the Aspen Institute charged $15 per ticket to this event, we know what they think it was worth, but I think admission should have been free.  It wouldn’t have improved the speech but the price would have been right.