The Best Media Money Can Buy: Remarks by Michael Copps

Remarks by Michael Copps, Special Adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, at the University of Delaware

Thank you, Danilo, for inviting me here today and for your very kind introduction. For those in the audience, I have known Danilo for quite a few years and came to truly value his research, expertise and dedication to the public interest while I served as a Member of the Federal Communications Commission. He was the pioneer-and is still the leader-in unearthing and studying those so-called “shared services agreements” that some broadcasters use to combine with other stations without going through the formality of a purchase, thereby under-cutting our media ownership caps. Danilo Yanich has shed powerful light on this “covert consolidation.” It’s an important and largely untold story in the decline of local journalism. His work deserves serious attention, not just in the halls of academe but also in the halls of the FCC.

This is our first foray outside the fabled D.C. Beltway, and it’s a particular pleasure to be holding it here at the University of Delaware. For one thing, folks in Delaware have been concerned about the shortage of local media for a long time because so much of what they see comes from the Philadelphia market. For another, today is something of a homecoming for the Media & Democracy Reform staff. Our Program Director is Todd O’Boyle-Dr.Todd O’Boyle since he received his degree earlier this year from the School of Public Policy and Administration here at the University-and I understand that Danilo served on his dissertation committee. So we’re doubly glad to be here. And let me also commend Dr. Aristigueta who has put together such a fine program here as Director.

When I retired from the Commission at the beginning of the year, I knew I wanted to remain active on the issues I had spent the previous decade fighting for. And at the top of my list are a diverse news and information ecosystem, local content, consumer protection, and universal access to the tools of communications. So I partnered with Common Cause-the public interest group that has done so much to oil the gears of our democracy-and together we are launching the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. We want a media that informs as well as entertains, that nourishes our civic dialogue, and that harnesses both traditional and new media to enhance the conversation citizens must have with one another if we are to have effective self-government. To get this done, we want to mobilize a grassroots citizens’ movement-because it’s at the grassroots, not in Washington, DC, where genuine reform sprouts up.

I entitled my remarks The Best Media Money Can Buy because our nation confronts a life-threatening challenge: huge swaths of the public airwaves have been hijacked by those whose primary objective is to serve the special interests rather than the public interest. If that wasn’t clear before this election year, it should be obvious now that we have had to endure such a mind-numbing campaign season where the volume of unaccountable and virtually anonymous political advertising has overwhelmed serious reporting on the issues and on local campaigns. When was the last time you saw good and informative TV coverage of your House of Representatives race or other local campaigns and issues? How many news stories have you seen questioning the veracity of the ads themselves? How much digging to tell you who is really paying for those ads? While you contemplate this, keep in mind that it is We, the People, who own the airwaves on which all this fluff travels. No station, no business, no special interest owns an airwave in this country of ours. Broadcasters get licenses to use them, to be sure, but the deal is that they receive those rights in return for being good stewards of a public resource. At least that’s how it was supposed to work.

Isn’t it curious, then-even surreal-that we have an election system where candidates and their surrogates go around asking for money from us so they can turn around and give our dollars to broadcasters to spew all this campaign disinformation over airwaves that you and I actually own? Again, do you think it was really supposed to work this way? Something is sadly and seriously amiss when a TV viewer sees maybe 20 times as much of the campaign via political ads than through real, honest-to-God accountability journalism.

“How did it happen?” you ask. Let me take just five minutes to make a very long story short. Here’s what went wrong with the media. Our story has a private sector part and a public sector part. For 30 years and more, private sector media consolidation has seen broadcast outlets bought up by the hundreds, as a few mega-media companies gobbled up small, local, independent outlets and created huge empires where they could realize so called “economies” and “efficiencies”. To make themselves ever more attractive to the captains of Wall Street, they cut costs wherever they could. And often the first place to go under the knife was the newsroom. Hundreds of newsrooms were dramatically down-sized, thousands of reporters were laid off, news feeds were brought in from distant realms, and the bottom line became the only line. News suffered. Minorities and other diversity communities in local markets got even less attention than before. Local music was pushed aside in favor of standardized, homogenized fare. It’s gotten so you can get into your car and turn on the radio on the East Coast and drive across the entire country and you’ll hear the same music, the same talk shows, pretty much the same everything-except maybe the weather. But then we discovered that some of the weathermen and women we were watching were actually hundreds of miles away and they’d put on a scarf so their viewers in Maine thought they were local and then a short-sleeved shirt for their Florida audience.

Stakeholders-those are the people the stations are supposed to be serving-go to the back of the line. Stockholders-move front-and-center. That became the new modus operandi.

Let me pause here to emphasize that I am not criticizing all broadcasters when I tell this story. There are still many-particularly those who have remained locally-held, independent, and often family-owned-who strive and serve the public interest. I commend them. In fact, I sympathize with them because it is more and more difficult for them, in this new age of the media-financial complex, to be captains of their own fate. More and more, they are forced to play by the rules of the big guys. Every day they come under incredible pressure to cave, and it is much, much harder for them to be good stewards of the peoples’ airwaves in this new dog-eat-dog environment. Unfortunately, the speculative fires burn on and our democracy suffers.

To make it a perfect storm, this private sector debacle was blessed-actually encouraged-by the public sector. To me, this is the saddest part of the story. And the place where I worked for more than a decade-the Federal Communications Commission-was at the center of it all, approving the mergers, seldom finding an acquisition it didn’t like, never questioning a licensee’s public interest performance, and actually eliminating almost all of the public interest guidelines that the Commission once had on its books-rules and procedures that had been fought for an won by generations of media reformers.

I’ve been talking about radio, television and cable. But realize this, please. When the broadband and the new media of the Internet came along, the Commission helped the big Internet access providers travel down the same misguided road-consolidation blessed by government, access to perhaps the most dynamic and opportunity-creating technology ever devised put into the hands of a few huge telecommunications giants, and no real public interest oversight.

What does this have to do with the sad state of our news and information ecosystem? Well, new media brought the potential to help rescue us from the wreckage of traditional radio, TV and cable. Perhaps there would even be a wonderful new town square of democracy, paved with broadband bricks. Lots of good things are happening on the Internet-great innovation, exciting experiments, creative entrepreneurship. Barriers to entry are low. The links are ubiquitous, and we can all be participants. But new media is not on auto-pilot to rescue us from the wreckage of the old. We have yet to see a new media business model that can sustain the kind of in-depth journalism we used to have. Paying reporters a decent wage and supporting bureaus in the state capitals and the capitals of the world is expensive. It is resource-intensive work. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when the experts tell us that 90-95% of the news we read on the Internet still originates in the newspaper and television newsrooms. It’s just that there is so much less of it than there used to be.

It’s not that we need to make a choice between traditional and new media. Or that we can patiently wait until new media hatches business models that can replace what has been lost in the old newsrooms. In 2012, and for years to come, we have a media ecosystem that is a hybrid of traditional and new, and we must deal with it as it exists. The damages inflicted on traditional media by consolidation gone rampant and government policy gone AWOL cry out for repair. Just as importantly, we must ensure that new media don’t go down the same road of consolidation and lack of public oversight. There are too many signs this is already happening. How tragic it would be if the dynamic potential of broadband and the Internet is hijacked by those who would turn it into something it was never meant to me. How sad if the end result is a cable-ized Internet.

Anyhow, that’s my encapsulated view of how we got to where we are-media too often of the few, by the few, and for the few. Had we avoided the consolidationtsunamiand had your government and mine not walked away from its public interest responsibilities for the past generation, I believe our political dialogue and our public policy debates this year would be taking place on a much higher plane.

Then, to make a bad situation much worse, along came Citizens United-the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to unleash unlimited and unaccountable corporate and other funds into our campaigns. Most of that money goes, of course, to media. So media is at the epicenter of the abuses that have been heaped upon our electoral processes. We need to recognize that up-front. That’s why this is so important. Money is not speech, corporations are not people, and if one priority should be at the very top of the legislative agenda next year, it is a Constitutional amendment making clear and making certain that people, not dollars, determine the future of this country.

Meanwhile, as we fight for the Amendment, there are some other things we can be doing. Bad as it was, theCitizens Uniteddecision did contain a bow in the direction of disclosure. The Court wouldn’t limit the cash, but it did come out for disclosure. In its decision, the Supreme Court noted that Congress was well within its rights to require disclosure of who was sponsoring political ads. This seems like an obvious and non-partisan issue, since transparency is a necessary condition for good government. Yet nothing in Washington is obvious anymore, and Congress failed to pass legislation to regulate these ads even minimally. The new Congress must revisit this issue and you and I should insist upon it. While disclosure itself is not the guarantor of the electoral process we seek, it can help us now while the Amendment process unfolds.

I have been advocating for two years that the FCC step up to the plate, too. To its credit, the Commission took a limited step this year by requiring some broadcasters in the larger markets to put their public files, often difficult-to-find at a station’s main studio, online. In this electronic age, that’s not asking much. The FCC’s new policy is unfortunately limited for now to network affiliates in the 50 largest media markets. So we just aren’t going to have much information about who is spending how much for ads in smaller markets that happen to be in swing states.

And instead of requiring a uniform reporting mechanism that would allow for easy data aggregation and manipulation, the FCC left stations considerable discretion about how they chose to report. Thankfully groups like ProPublica are crowdsourcing the decryption of these data, and hopefully their findings will be able to drive a much-needed dialogue about campaign spending and disclosure. But the American people deserve more. We shouldn’t need legions of volunteers deciphering forms and aggregating data. Most troublingly, the rules don’t even apply to the worst offenders. That’s because so-called “social welfare” groups like Crossroads GPS are exempt. These groups can collect unlimited corporate dollars to plow into endless political ads.

What the Commission has previously required in the public files doesn’t drill below the surface when it comes to disclosure and it’s nowhere near the transparency to which citizens are entitled. But, and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, the broadcasters sued the FCC anyhow because they don’t want to make it one whit easier for researchers to find out who’s paying how much for what when it comes to political advertising.

A political ad saying that it is sponsored by “Citizens for Purple Mountain Majesties and Amber Waves of Grain” isn’t telling me enough. It doesn’t give me a clue about who’s trying to buy my vote. In reality, maybe it’s a chemical company that’s refusing to clean up a toxic dump. By the way, Delawareans especially might want to take a look at Common Cause’s revealing report, Toxic Spending, out this week, about the chemical industry spending some $39 million over the last seven years to elect industry-friendly politicians who then go to bat for their benefactors whenever sensible regulation to protect us from toxic materials comes up. Here’s another example: how about those “Restore Our Future” ads? Not only does that not tell us who is footing the bill for all this nonsense, it’s not even semantically correct. “Restore our future”? What does that mean? A final example: one individual in Missouri has reportedly been responsible for over $20 million in campaign spending since 2008. What’s that got to do with one-person-one-vote?

Few people realize that the Commission already has authority to require far deeper disclosure than what we are getting. In fact, it has rules regarding sponsorship generally and political advertisements specifically. Section 317 of the Telecommunications Act requires that broadcast and cable political ads must “fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, committee, association or other unincorporated group, or other entity” paying for them. The rationale for this requirement is clearly stated in the law: “because listeners are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded.”

You know, there are FCC rules that require a soft drink maker or a car manufacturer that pays to have its product shown on a program to disclose its sponsorship to the viewing public. They’re called product placement rules. I support them enthusiastically. But if we can be so concerned about the impact on viewers of a can of Pepsi or the latest turbo-powered sports convertible, shouldn’t we be even more concerned about requiring full disclosure when someone is trying to manipulate voter choice?

Right now in our country, money commands more power than in any era of our history-including even the notorious Gilded Age of the late Nineteenth century. When so few wield so much outrageous power, sponsorship disclosure strikes me as a rather modest requirement. If even the current Supreme Court suggests it, it can’t be all that radical, can it? So I hope my friends in Congress and on the Commission will, in the wake of this campaign’s woeful distortion of the democratic process, put things aright so we don’t have to endure this ever again.

If we had more reporters, more fact-digging, and more resource-rich investigative journalism, we would go a long way to counter-balance this flood-tide of campaign cash and to informing our citizens. Local broadcasters could play a huge role here. Unfortunately, as a recent Free Press report on ad spending in Denver documented, the broadcasters’ contribution to localism has been vanishingly small. During August and September, the four major broadcast affiliates in Denver subjected viewers to 26,000 ads. Did the broadcasters fact check these ads? Did they call out lies? Barely, if at all. Viewers were lucky for an occasional minute-long “he-said, he-said” report stating that each side thought the other’s ads were unfair. That is nowhere close to the accountability journalism that citizens deserve.

I should also point out that stations can exercise judgment and decline to air misleading ads by outside groups. So why not call misleading ads out? The question of course answers itself, and the answer is money. Federal law requires broadcasters to sell federal candidates ad time at their lowest rate. Ads from outside groups can bring in up to 4x as much as straight candidate ads. Wouldn’t it be helpful if broadcasters could invest some of their ad windfall in covering more local issues, down-ballot races, and other public affairs? But without some guidelines from the FCC-without some requirement that to get their licenses renewed, they have to do an adequate job serving their communities-it’s just not going to happen.

So even as shared services agreements are cloaking consolidation and creating newsroom staff redundancies, theNew York Timesreported earlier this month that a station in Las Vegas has taken to shortening its evening newscast to provide for longer commercial breaks, ergo, more political ads. The gravy train rolls on while citizens and whole communities are left in the lurch. Or, to paraphrase my friend and colleague Robert McChesney, a rich media breeds a poor democracy.

All this corporate consolidation and governmental abrogation of the public interest has happened right under our noses. Why isn’t it front-page news? Don’t citizens care? You know what? I think they do care. Not only do I think that-I know that. Back in 2002-2003, then Chairman of the FCC Michael Powell decided to loosen the Commission’s media ownership rules. Those are the rules that limit how many stations one company can own in a particular market. He, and two of his colleagues, were a majority in favor of more consolidation. They thought they could get it done quietly, in true “inside the Beltway” fashion. My colleague Jonathan Adelstein and I believed otherwise. We opposed loosening the limits and we believed a lot of other people did, too. So we took to the road, holding and attending hearings around the country. People came out by the hundreds and our hearings lasted 6, 8, even 9 hours, far into the night, sometimes beyond midnight, with citizens airing their displeasure at the decline of their local media. Liberals came out, but conservatives, too. Red-staters and blue-staters got up to ask what had happened to their local news, why diverse communities were so shoddily covered, why programming had gotten so homogenized and nationalized. And you know what happened then? Three million people-three million people-went home and contacted the FCC and Congress to say they opposed what the majority was doing. Well, the majority did it anyways, but that grassroots outrage was enough to persuade the Senate to overturn what Chairman Powell and his colleagues had done. The House expressed its displeasure, too, and then the Third Circuit Court sent the Powell rules back to the Commission and told it to do a better job next time.

Sad to report, it’s now 2012 and the issue remains unsettled. In fact, in perhaps just a few days the Commission will issue a long-overdue new review of its ownership rules to Congress. Rumor has it that there will be no new limits on consolidation, nor any reassertion of the FCC’s public interest responsibilities in this report. That would be a tragic missed opportunity, opening the way for more of what we have endured for more than 30 years now. I’ll wait to see the report before I comment further, but I urge you to look at it, too, and if you don’t like what you read, don’t keep it a secret. Give vent to your views.

A new Gilded Age calls for a new reform movement. We should start by requiring full disclosure of political ads. Then move on to halt consolidation and put government back to work making sure the licensing bargain between broadcasters and the citizens who own the airwaves is carried out. We must work for the inclusion of minorities and women in our media industries and by that I mean especially minority and female ownership. We must add diversity to the airwaves through Low-Power FM licenses that serve unique local content in their communities, as intended. Public broadcasting deserves real funding – its existence shouldn’t be threatened every two years. We must fight back against the state-level deregulation of communications. We must do whatever it takes to guarantee Internet Freedom, sometimes inelegantly called “network neutrality,” so that new media can reach its transformative democratic potential. We must build the best news and information ecosystem possible to nourish our civic dialogue and see the country through some of the most threatening times it has experienced-ever.

If I went around this room and asked each of you what is the greatest issue facing our country right now, I would likely get many different answers. Jobs. Schools starving for resources. Close to 50 million people without health insurance. Energy dependence. Climate degradation. Lack of equal opportunity. The list goes on. Every one of those issues demands difficult decisions, complicated solutions. Every one of those issues demands an informed electorate, citizens with enough information to make truly-informed decisions about our future. Now, if you’re satisfied that your number one issue is getting all the attention that it deserves, fine, just let things be. But if you think your number one issue could benefit from a little more coverage, a little more diversity, some more real facts, a genuine clash of informed opinion, then you need to put media reform right after that number one issue. As for me, I put it at number one.

This is why I am going back on the road, this time as a private citizen. It’s my mission. As I said, this is the first of many Media Democracy and Reform forums, meetings and efforts around the country. I hope you’ll join us by signing up at Follow us on Twitter with your own Dr. O’Boyle @ttoboyle. Share your ideas on how to reform the media from the ground up. Attend Free Press’s National Conference on Media Reform in Denver in April. We’ll be there in force. Become a part of the movement. Talk to your family and friends. Write an op-ed or a blog. Sing, march, do whatever you can. Make this a big issue.

Let’s shoot for the Best Media Money Can’t Buy! Working together in activism we can-and we will-build the media ecosystem America deserves.

Thank you again for hosting us. I look forward to your comments, suggestions and questions.