At Last A Beginning

At last it’s happening—a growing national discussion about how America’s news and information “industry” is failing to nourish our civic dialogue. It’s a nascent discussion, to be sure, but at least a few times each week I find an article or commentary about it.  There is not a more important discussion we should be having, nor as good a time to have it, as now.  It should be something we expect the candidates to discuss—and take a stand on—as the 2020 election campaigns ramp up.  That’s because none of the many issues that voters care about will ever be successfully resolved until media get their act together and realize that without an informed citizenry, self-government cannot sustain itself—not on the nutrition-free diet of infotainment and opinion-shouting we are being served.  But it depends on us to push all these leaders and would-be leaders to step forward and confront the issue head-on.  Powerful special interests will try to stymie such a discussion, but taking on the special interests is what democracy demands, right?

I won’t dwell here on what I have written in this space many times before: how the consolidation of radio, television, cable, and now the internet has diminished journalism.  People increasingly understand that these mega-billion dollar media buy-outs lead directly to the mass firing of investigative journalists and to cutting in half, since the early 2000s, the number of newsroom employees.  It is no stretch to say that we are getting about half the real news we used to receive.  When was the last time you heard or saw an in-depth story about what’s going on in your state capital?  Yet that’s where the legislative action is these days as special interests pass law after law decimating consumer protection agencies, public utility commissions, health and environmental protection programs, and municipal authority, to name a few.  Sometimes I wonder which is worse—Washington grid-lock or the flood of anti-consumer legislation in so many states.  Journalists don’t walk those statehouse beats like they used to—because there aren’t enough journalists. And when was the last time you heard or saw an in-depth report on your school board or city council or mayor’s office?  I shudder to think about what shenanigans and outright corruption are going on behind the scenes without us having even a clue.

National news is similarly diminished.  If it wasn’t for people sending video snippets to the networks of happenings not always germane to the health of the body politic, we might not even have those nightly broadcasts.  If it blows up, bleeds or burns, you’ll see it on the evening news.  Most of the overseas bureaus the evening news programs used to rely on are shuttered.  As for our nation’s capital, Trump’s tweets have shoved aside what we need to be learning.  Credit Donald Trump with understanding how to use the internet.  It’s an integral part of what I call his “Distract and Destroy” strategy.  In the pre-dawn hours he concocts some ridiculous tweet and it becomes the news of the day.  So-called “panels of experts” are called in to parse a tweet about someone being fat, lazy, or just plain dumb.  (If it wasn’t for the Russian story, Trump would have a total lock on the news.)  Meanwhile, while he distracts the country and the media, his agents are destroying government—programs and agencies built up over generations to protect us and advance the common good.

Now that the 2020 campaign has begun, most signs indicate that it will be a re-run of the 2016 reality show where the media will focus on verbal gaffes, personalities, and who can get off the best zinger or insult.  Remember one-time media titan Les Moonves of CBS who repeatedly said during the last Presidential election that he didn’t know if Donald Trump was good for America, but he’s “damn good for CBS.”  At least Moonves had the candor (that time) to say what other media moguls believed in their hearts and stuffed into their wallets.

As I have said before, there is still good journalism available, although it’s more and more challenging to hunt it down in a time when it should be easier than ever.  There remain good newspapers, broadcast outlets, public media, even a small number of internet sites doing good work.  Unfortunately, they are much more the exception than the rule. And most of these are struggling to stay alive in a world increasingly controlled by the giants.  We once thought that the internet would spawn thousands of community and journalistic news sites, but it’s 2019 and there is still no model for robust, independent, and diverse online news.  Much of the news we get from Facebook is simply plucked from other sources and not paid for; it’s then run alongside advertisements that earn Facebook billions. And what does Facebook put back into news development and journalism?  Precious little is the answer.  If this is to be the legacy of the internet, then one of history’s greatest technological inventions will have been denied its potential.

New figures published by The New York Times last month document the dizzying pace of internet consolidation.  Since 2007, Facebook has acquired 92 companies, including Instagram and WhatsApp.  Not to be outdone, Google has acquired 270 companies over the last 20 years, including YouTube and Doubleclick.  Where’s the democratic internet there?  Time for some changes, maybe?

Understand this: Big Media’s business model is based on the premise that you and I are not citizens to be informed; rather, we are products to be sold to advertisers.  And it’s going like gangbusters for them.

At the Federal Communications Commission and now at Common Cause, I have visited scores of communities around the country, and I can attest that as people understand this issue, they give it their support.  At town hall meetings they are vocal and upset. They get it that their local news has deteriorated to weather, sports, murder and blood.  And they also see that we aren’t getting the national and global information we need if our country is going to resolve the myriad democracy-threatening challenges it confronts.

SO…LET’S MAKE IT AN ISSUE FOR 2020!

Let’s ask the candidates where they stand—the Presidential contenders, of course, but Congressional, state, and local aspirants, too, because decisions affecting our media are being made at all these levels.  Let’s ask them what they’re going to do about it if they get elected.  Let’s target candidate forums and debates.  Let’s ask them why we don’t have net neutrality yet while polling shows some 85% of us—Republicans, Democrats, and Independent—want it.  Let’s pursue them on consolidation—both in traditional and new media.  Let’s also ask the moderators and anchors who ask the questions at candidate debates to include these issues.  A lot of journalists may be afraid to buck the network owners, but we ought to challenge these journalists to show some profile in courage.  Journalists need to be a contributing part of the solution to the declining state of their own craft.  It’s their responsibility, too.

This is, to me, the issue of issues.  I hope you will make it yours, too.


Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC’s Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of “the public interest”; outreach to what he calls “non-traditional stakeholders” in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation’s media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest. Learn more about Commissioner Copps in The Media Democracy Agenda: The Strategy and Legacy of FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps