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.

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.


Leave PBS Stations Alone

Since 1985, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has had a policy on the books stating that its member stations must offer a “nonsectarian, nonpolitical, noncommercial educational program service.”

It might be going a bit far to say that PBS has “adhered” to the policy.  Member stations routinely air presidential debates and weekly shows like “Washington in Review” that are nothing if not political.  The “enhanced underwriting credits” for big program funders like Boeing and Lockheed Martin look suspiciously like slick network TV commercials.   

And being British isn’t enough to make shows like “Are You Being Served?” and “As Time Goes By” educational.  Moreover, a handful of smaller stations run sectarian programs that include Catholic Masses and Mormon worship services.

Now, however, the PBS board is considering a revision to its so-called “Three Nons” policy that could force local religious programming off the airwaves of PBS member stations, or force those stations to give up their PBS membership.

A change in policy would likely affect stations like WLAE in New Orleans, which has aired a Sunday Mass since 1984, and Brigham Young University’s KBYU in Provo that carries Mormon worship services.

The proposed policy change is a bad idea.  A PBS committee “believes that if PBS or its Member Stations were perceived by the public to be ‘commercial,’ ‘political,’ or ‘sectarian,’ PBS could be hampered in its ability to carry out its mission.”  

Wait a minute – PBS seems to be carrying out its mission just fine with its members’ current mix of programming that includes all of the above.  

So why single out sectarian programming?  Some might argue that there should be a strict separation of church and state, since PBS member stations receive some funding from the federal government’s Corporation for Public Broadcasting, either directly or through PBS.  

But one need look no further than the FCC, which regulates both noncommercial and commercial broadcasting, to diffuse that argument.  As far back as 1929, the agency (then the Federal Radio Commission) said that broadcast licensees would meet their “public interest” obligations by offering a “well-rounded” mix of programming that included “religion, education and instruction.”  In a 1946 report, the FCC said it expected broadcasters to make free time available to “religious, civic, agricultural, labor, and educational groups.”

The FCC strayed from that policy briefly in 1999, when it issued a ruling that would have banned religious exhortation, proselytizing, and personal expressions of religious belief.  The resulting firestorm was so fierce (including the swift introduction of several bills in Congress) that the FCC deleted the provision a mere month later.

PBS should take its lead from the FCC.  PBS would do well to respect the local character of its member stations, and allow those stations to meet the needs of their audiences without injecting an anti-religion bias.

As it is, public broadcasting in this country is a strange and unlikely amalgam of governmental and private interests, with stations licensed to state and local governments, public and private universities, and even religious groups.  Its fragile equilibrium could easily be disrupted – say, by an untoward policy change.

Changing the “Three Nons” policy as proposed will accomplish nothing positive.  On the contrary, quite likely it will cause a firestorm of its own that might well ignite the now-simmering debate about the very existence of PBS, and whether a broadcasting system that receives even minimal government funding is still a good or necessary idea in this age of media abundance.