Hold The Hallelujahs

Michael Copps


It turns out all those chants of victory following the November elections were, shall we say, a tad overblown. I wrote a blog shortly thereafter that a few of my friends thought was something of a downer. While I celebrated holding the Senate, cheered the defeat of many Trump-endorsed election deniers, and enjoyed the chalking up of some unexpected victories around the country, I warned that a House of Representatives fixated on investigating the Biden Administration rather than addressing the systemic shortfalls of our country augured poorly for the two years just ahead. With a House stubbornly averse to meeting its Constitutionally-mandated legislative responsibilities and—perhaps just as bad—an increasingly dysfunctional judiciary that seems intent on neutering the other two branches of government, I wrote that it looked like tough sledding ahead for our struggling democracy.

So happy days aren’t here again, and it will require significantly more strenuous efforts from we the people to hold off the wolves at the door and to set the stage for government that actually meets the needs of the American people.

The House GOP majority may be slim, and its factions next to impossible to corral when it comes to legislating, but remember the House majority is not out to legislate. It is out to demolish. Perhaps a majority in the U.S. Senate can clip some of the House’s far-right fantasies, but remember the oft-stated GOP Senate priority is also to write finis to Joe Biden’s Administration.

Some will say our country has survived worse, and arguably it has. They will say we are better off now than we were generations ago. That, too, is true—for many, but certainly not all, of us. The better test of where we are is to measure our progress against the tools we now have available to improve our lives. Online technology opens vast new vistas of opportunity—but at the same time it is imposing serious harms on us, our children, and our society. We are doing precious little to eliminate those harms. Advances in healthcare have curbed diseases and saved countless lives—but it is available to far fewer citizens here than it is in several other nations, and its availability is accompanied by sky-high costs that put it beyond the reach of many. We are doing precious little to eliminate those harms. Our educational system is horrendously uneven, with hard-working and embarrassingly under-paid teachers trying their mightiest to overcome the politicization of the curriculum they have to teach and the paucity of resources available to them. No wonder the test scores of our students are in free-fall compared to many other nations. We are doing precious little to eliminate those harms.

My list could go on, but you get my point. Now add to all of this a media system that pays little attention to these challenges because it has morphed into entertaining and profiteering rather than informing us, and you begin to understand one of the greatest ills from which we suffer. A successful democracy absolutely depends upon informed citizens. Poor info, poor democracy. Our country’s founders, more than 230 years ago, saw news and information as public goods. More than that, they viewed them as national priorities.  That’s why leaders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and many others favored the building of post offices, postal roads, and postal subsidies. Their aim was to hold together a far-flung and ever-expanding nation by trying to ensure that citizens knew enough to sustain the founders’ bold experiment in self-government. It was far from perfect, to be sure, but back then the tools with which to inform were primitive.

Today we have infinitely more powerful tools in radio, television, cable, and the internet—tools capable of covering the continent in milliseconds. But the founders far-seeing premise no longer holds sway. Too often it has been displaced by those who run these media, especially the corporate conglomerates, who have forgotten they are managing something essential to a democratic society. Whatever happened to the Founders’ appreciation of media as a public good?

I no longer believe, and haven’t for years, that our current commercialized and consolidated media is capable of curing its own ills. I applaud what remains of community and independent media. These folks struggle mightily to maintain sufficient resources needed to do their jobs, but it becomes more difficult each year as newspapers are bought up by huge non-community chains, local stations go off the air, newsrooms are shuttered, reporters are fired en masse, and local, regional, and statehouse coverage diminishes. It’s not working; something else is needed.

There is no silver bullet solution to repair our media ecosystem. But part of the answer must be significantly increased support for public media, non-profits, and start-ups. Compared to other advanced nations, the United States spent only a pittance on public broadcasting—about $3.16 per capita per annum, the Nieman Lab reported last year.  Other countries?—Germany $142.42; Norway $110.73; Finland $101.29; Denmark $93.16; France $75.89. We need to catch up and, given our size and population, go beyond what even those nations are spending. And we need to provide significantly more support for not just national news and information like PBS and NPR, but on local and community news and information.

Then we need to repair commercial media like radio and TV, bringing back Federal Communications Commission regulatory oversight that was built up over the years but eliminated by recent GOP-majority FCCs. Rules and regulations limiting mergers and acquisitions, requiring diversity of viewpoint and diversity of ownership, coverage of local news like mayors’ offices, courts, school boards, environmental challenges, limits on advertising, some semblance of balance in the presentation of viewpoints, and programs for children. While cable has been treated differently from radio and television, it is time to bring some public interest oversight here, too. Yes, the main focus these days seems to be on what to do about the internet. Yet as former President Barack Obama and many others have observed, much of the mis- and dis-information on social media originates on traditional media platforms.

But the public interest applies equally online. The internet has brought a wealth of good things to us, and we cannot do without it. But while we were all hailing the good that it brought, we paid scant attention to ills that we should have seen coming. The open,” power-at-the-edges” technology that was to bring the town square of democracy online was allowed to consolidate into a few giants calling the shots and encouraging the misinformation that is wreaking such damage on our civic dialogue. Here we need anti-trust to stop online monopolies, industry transparency, consumer privacy with clear limits on what data companies are allowed to collect, opt-in consent to protect our personal information, effective protections for children, requirements for broadband affordability, and new models based on public support so we can build competitive opportunities for small and independent entrepreneurs. President Biden’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed rightfully calls on Congress to enact many of these reforms by passing meaningful legislation. The last session of Congress laid the groundwork for many of these proposals, and in an ideal world this Congress could pick up the baton and cross the finish line. In a world where dominant digital platforms have inflicted so many societal harms, public interest protections for the internet should be a no-brainer. To claim that the internet should be treated as outside the public domain is just plain ludicrous. Any balanced reading of the Telecommunications Act makes clear that public interest oversight can be applied to the broad range of industries utilizing the public airwaves, radio, and wire. What’s ambiguous about that?

Over the years that I have been writing these blogs, my focus returns most often to the idea that getting our media right is essential—not just desirable—to our country’s well-being. We need media that informs and underpins democracy. But we have let media run wild in an orgy of commercialism, consolidation, profiteering, and disregard for the citizenry that must be its lodestar. It is time to fix this mess.

Given the state of our nation’s politics, legislation, and jurisprudence, this will be a steep hill to climb—a really steep hill! But climb it we must. We know that popular trust in our media has significantly declined. People “get it” that something is amiss in media land. I’ve seen this for years in my travels and public meetings across the land. But, of course, big media doesn’t want to carry this story.

As on other issues, the American people are more often than not ahead of their leaders. We can see this regarding other sectors, too. Take healthcare. While the far-right may like to gut programs like Medicare and Medicaid, a majority of voters support them. Last November’s elections proved that. There’s a long list of reforms that we have witnessed over our nation’s history that came not from “leaders” in Washington, but from pressure by the grassroots. Truth be told, that’s how most reforms have come about. So, to end on a hopeful note, we can do this again on the media reform. Let us each work to bring this realization front-and-center, and to do so in such a way that our leaders get the message that supporting good media might, after all, be good politics, too. It may not be the greatest time to get this job done, but it may be the only time democracy has left.

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

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