I have a bad case of news blues. Journalism is fast becoming a vast wasteland, recalling the great Newt Minow’s insightful characterization of television in the early Sixties. Newsrooms across the land are hollowed out, or in many cases shuttered. Approximately one-half of America’s newsroom employees have been terminated since the early 2000s. Hedge funds own perhaps a third of our large newspaper chains, and thousands of TV and radio stations have been gobbled up in the mad rush to industry consolidation by a few media behemoths, leaving many communities without any way to generate their own news and information. And the internet, which was supposed to correct all this, has thus far demonstrably failed the task.
I have written many times in this space about the consequences of journalism’s near-collapse for our democracy. I write again now because this is the issue that continues to drive me. Less journalism, less deep-dive investigative reporting, less real news can lead only to less informed citizens. That’s you and me. If we don’t have the news and information we need in order to make intelligent decisions about our country’s future, then the decisions we do make will be, to put it bluntly, dumber. I don’t say this in a partisan manner, because we are, all of us, victims of the prevailing news and information vacuum. History tells us of the cost societies pay for such a vacuum. Our country has no guarantees for its future; whether it is a successful or a failed future depends upon the choices we make. Self-government depends upon voters who know what’s going on. Right now, most citizens don’t, and I include myself in that category.
To be sure, we still have examples of independent media and real investigative reporting. There are still newspapers and TV newsrooms that can wave their flags high, but even those that dig deep on a few issues have no choice but to cut back on other stories that we should know about.
I admit I am a news junkie. I spend considerable time each day with newspapers, TV, and the internet. Most of them aren’t what they used to be. Take one example: the evening news on television. It is fast-mimicking what the big conglomerates have visited upon local news: if it bleeds, it leads. Crimes, auto wrecks, fist fights—if someone with a cell phone happens to record it and sends the network a video clip, that’s the evening’s lead—and sometimes, that’s the bulk of the broadcast. It’s a lot cheaper for big media than hiring reporters who could be chasing down real news. Cable news continues its slide into repetitive bloviating—on both sides of the political spectrum. And the internet, which has yet to produce an economic model to sustain widespread news, watches as the giants who control it focus on what really drives them—delivering us to advertisers and, tragically, costing us our privacy and subjecting us to a lot of misinformation produced from who-knows-where-and-why. Corporate-inspired news, fake news, and hyper-political extremism are not the nutrients that will sustain our democracy. No more dangerous challenge confronts our country than setting all this right.
Some would argue the situation is too far gone to repair. They can make a very credible case for that. Powerful forces are indeed in the saddle. But I believe that we, the people, can still overcome these forces. One bright sign: now, finally, there are signs that the problem is beginning to draw some attention. I am seeing more people thinking the thoughts I’m thinking, and I am seeing in books, journals, and even some newspapers, articles and commentary awakening to the threat. But it’s a bare beginning, at best. The solutions to this challenge are broad, deep, and expensive.
So the first step is for more of us to recognize the challenge. The second step is to broaden our recognition of the challenge to a national audience, to take this nascent discussion across the land and make it an issue of serious citizen concern. And then comes the really hard part: coming up with workable solutions.
No one has a silver bullet solution. Many suggestions have been made, running the gamut from seriously difficult to highly improbable in the current political and economic climate. These include strong anti-trust enforcement, regulatory oversight, investment in public media, tax incentives, tax vouchers for citizens to direct toward media of their choice, enhanced foundation and philanthropy support, public interest rules/guidelines for both traditional and new media, and K-12 media literacy in our schools.
There is increasing discussion of meaningful anti-trust enforcement. Laws have been on the books for over a hundred years, but more times honored in the breach than in the practice. Like the courts that tried to upend the New Deal back in Franklin Roosevelt’s time, the current judiciary seems similarly horse-and-buggy. We’ll know for sure when the net neutrality decision comes out later this year, but recent decisions permitting such ludicrous mergers as AT&T/Time Warner are not promising. The court doesn’t even recognize the harms imposed by vertical mergers that allow one company to control both content and distribution (if that’s not monopoly, what is?). And the court-packing that the Administration and Mitch McConnell are pushing through a well-greased Senate majority could stack the deck against real anti-trust for a generation to come. But a different Congress could make the law clear for everyone to understand, and a different Administration could make sure it is implemented.
We must put the brakes on ever-more mergers—and in some cases break up companies that exercise power that no company should be allowed to exercise in a democratic society. The really big guys have a lock on what communities see and hear. A company owning the top stations in a market, and maybe the newspaper too, leaves no room for local and community media. It deprives the populace of the diverse news and information it must have in order to make intelligent decisions for the country’s future. And, yes, the internet amazons have to be taken on, too.
Rules and regulation in the public interest are essential. The past twenty years have seen the evisceration of serious government oversight. The Federal Communications Commission majority seems intent on destroying any vestige of the responsibility they were given many years ago. The FCC rubber-stamps just about every corporate media and telecom merger that comes its way. It allows a handful of media conglomerates to eliminate local and community media, permitting far-away firms to control both the local media and the local newspaper. We need to restore rules for broadcasting that insist upon public affairs programming, local events, limits on advertising, provision for a diversity of voices to be heard, and the restoration of public service announcements to replace one of those five or six ads that we presently must endure every 15 minutes. Cable rules need to be updated, rather than the hands-off policies the FCC has followed for many years. And don’t tell me the Communications Act doesn’t permit this. Congress and the FCC need to read the law.
Our government’s support of public broadcasting and media is pitiful. We need support for public media news on a level that is orders of magnitude beyond the pittance Congress reluctantly appropriates now. “Oh, that means government control over our news,” some will say. Hogwash. Countries that are ranked much higher in the democracy ratings that are published each year by such reputable sources at The Economist and Freedom House put billions of dollars into sustaining public media. These countries have firewalls to protect against any government encroachment. (It doesn’t take rocket science to provide such protections.) They also have better news and information.
Guaranteeing freedom of the internet, some 80%+ of American agree, is essential. Should the court not rule against the current FCC’s repeal of strong net neutrality rules, Congress must step in. The introduction and passage of net neutrality protections in numerous states, bless them, is a bright sign. At the end of the day, of course, we need these protections in all 50 states. Another promising step was the introduction in the House and Senate last week of the “Save the Internet Act” by Democratic leadership in both chambers. This would restore the strong FCC rules of 2015 that FCC Chairman Pai’s “get rid of government” majority repealed. Keep alert here, though: bills introduced in the House by various Republicans purporting to provide net neutrality are so wide of the mark as to be ridiculous.
But let’s realize, as I have written here before, that net neutrality is the prerequisite of an open internet, not its realization. Still to be addressed are monopoly power, never-ending consolidation, online journalism, rules of copyright, and numerous other issues. When we get those done, we can talk about having a truly open net.
There are other suggestions for fixing the mess in which we find ourselves. I’ll bet there will be many other ideas that no one has yet thought about if we can manage to spark a truly nationwide discussion.
It’s a hugely ambitious agenda, right? Not about to take off and fly in our current political environment. But it won’t ever happen unless we first understand the seriousness of our predicament and then resolve to think and talk about it. Some of what I have presented above is achievable in the relatively near-term future, within a few years. Other ideas will take longer. Meantime, the problem only compounds. Unaddressed, we may soon be at the point of no return.
We can still tackle this. But only as a society and at the grassroots. That’s where real reform comes from anyway, so we must be about generating this grassroots dialogue now.
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.