Platforms Without Media?

Posted by Michael Copps on July 12, 2016

Logo for the Benton FoundationThis blog was posted in partnership with the Benton Foundation

Party platforms can be sleepy affairs. In recent years, platform writing too often became an exercise of box-checking to “reach out and touch” as many interest groups as possible so everyone felt involved, with an anodyne sentence or two thrown in so these interests felt included. Long on generalities and short on specifics, platforms in recent years were routinely adopted at the party’s convention—and then promptly forgotten.

So far 2016 has defied conventional wisdom and political history on many fronts. There are signs that even platform drafting might be affected. Just last week, Mrs. Clinton came forward with a technology agenda strongly promoting universal, affordable broadband and an open internet. We in the public interest community have been fighting for support on both these issues for years, so it is gratifying to see one of the major parties responding.

But so far we haven’t heard much on media policy. We ignore media policy at our own peril. An informed electorate is the essential foundation for successful self-government, and media are responsible for providing us with the news and information we need to make intelligent decisions for the country’s future. Media are a public good, as necessary to democracy’s life as oxygen is to an individual’s life.

Most citizens I meet, wherever I go, understand that today’s media come nowhere close to fulfilling their informational responsibilities. Infotainment has shoved aside deep-dive journalism, and this year’s Presidential campaign has degenerated into a tawdry reality show that big media companies have designed for the sole and express purpose of making money for themselves by “entertaining” us. Then, come November 8, we are supposed to decide which candidates’ gaffes will get them voted off the island. What a sorry and totally embarrassing spectacle it is.

Radio, television, cable, and yes, even the internet, are each and all in default. Community outlets have been gobbled up by a handful of media giants; newsrooms have been starved and often shuttered; and “if it bleeds, it leads” stories dominate news “shows” at both the national and local levels. Gate-keeping power online also resides in the hands of fewer and fewer big players, and that threat persists in spite of the very welcome court decision upholding the FCC’s rules on network neutrality. While the court’s decision is hugely important, the issues of spiraling communications industry consolidation, mind-numbing content commercialization, and lack of diversity remain to be seriously addressed. Net neutrality is not the end of the debate over the future of our online media; it is preface. The internet is a component of our media infrastructure, not its totality.

No candidate’s communications platform should be considered complete absent a discussion of the larger media issues I am discussing here. We should note that Senator Sanders has spoken often and eloquently about our country’s media shortfalls. Let’s hope the Democratic platform writers will yet heed his sage advice.

It would be helpful if media pushed the presumptive candidates to focus on the importance of media policy to our democracy. But since so much of media has fallen under the thumbs of so few, it is difficult to see that happening. When they deign to even mention media, the mainstream behemoths focus on the horse-race of who will be in charge of media policy after the election, not on what that policy will be. Articles are already appearing about who has the inside track to become the next President’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair or senior White House advisors. These stories hardly get beyond which possible appointees for the coveted jobs have raised the most money for Candidate X or held the most fundraisers for Candidate Y. This is interesting and even necessary to know at some point, but right now a discussion of the candidates’ media policies would be significantly more helpful as voters try to inform themselves about who to vote for. I believe people actually want to know about this.

As evidence of popular interest, I cite important people-powered communications victories. It took four million Americans writing the FCC to win the net neutrality fight I have already mentioned. It also took popular push-back against the anti-competitive Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger to deep-six that proposed transaction. And it took considerable public pressure to persuade the FCC to set aside telecom industry-driven rules that choked off community broadband in North Carolina and Tennessee.

These tremendous victories are still under attack. Some are subject to legal challenge. Others may fall victim to legislative neutering. It’s no exaggeration to say the future of democratic media is at stake.

So media policy matters. Regardless of which party wins, we need an administration and FCC that will hear the call of the people—and deliver. Protecting our wins—and extending them—requires policy-makers with the vision to grasp the media problem and the passion to fix it, the undue power and influence of Big Cable, Big Telecom, and Big Internet notwithstanding. Vision in communications policy is not giving each special interest group a tip of the hat here or a nod of the head there; it is about providing a program for the future of our all-important communications infrastructure.

Quite simply there is no way we succeed as a nation without tackling the media challenge. As I have long maintained, no matter what issue motivates you most—job creation, economic inequality, equal rights for all, environmental protection, voting rights, or whatever—progress on these issues will remain unlikely until we have a communications ecosystem that truly informs the electorate. Communications reform really must be everyone’s priority. As for me, creating media that nourishes democracy remains my first priority. I hope it becomes yours, too. We all have responsibilities here: candidates for office, platform writers, the media, and—most importantly of all—ourselves.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Media and Democracy

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