Data Anxiety

Tempus fugit

“I yearn for the days when finances will be done electronically by password, so there’ll be no incentive for street robbery.”

WWWTXT (1980–94): ☯83FEB

Letter from an FCC commissioner to jounalists, fini

I am not the country’s only concerned citizen. During my 10 years at the FCC, I took part in scores of town hall meetings and community forums all across America to tell people what I saw happening and to learn more about their personal experiences…In some places these meetings would attract attention; in others they would go unnoticed.

Anomalous press coverage disparities

If a city or town’s media was under consolidated control—with a large, far-away company owning the major broadcast and newspaper outlets…the coverage would be somewhere between slim and none…Most of these town hall meetings went on for hours…with hundreds of citizens…there would be an open microphone, so everyone could speak; a U.S. senator or congressperson would often be on the program, sometimes even hosting it.

Following the hearings, I would rush…to flip on the TV looking for coverage. Occasionally there would be a mention; more often it was silence in Big Media Land. But if I was visiting a town where independent media still existed and locally employed journalists were on the beat, there would be advance notice that a meeting was going to happen; there was often live TV coverage; and the event would be reported in detail…on the front page of the local paper.

Media ownership

I am not a conspiracy theorist by nature. While still a Commissioner, I went one day to visit the editorial page editor of a major newspaper. I had noticed an editorial chastising the excesses of big oil companies. I told the editor I was there to urge the paper to run a similar critique about the excesses of big media. The response I got was a negative shake of the head…the editor had complete freedom to cover any issue—except one. That issue was media ownership. I nearly fell through the floor at this stark admission.

Legislators will find the doors to corrective national legislation already barred by many states—or, more accurately, barred by ALEC. But when private-sector business plans diminish the infrastructure upon which we rely for our news and information, it is a story that needs to be told. When infotainment supplants hard news, shouted opinion displaces fact, and whole swathes of this land of diversity go uncovered, it is a story that needs to be told. When government policy aids and abets the transformation, it is a story that needs to be told.

More after the jump »

Letter from an FCC commissioner, continued

Frankly, I was expecting change for the better after the 2008 presidential election and the coming of a Democratic majority to the FCC. After all, Senator Barack Obama had expressed his opposition to the pace of media industry consolidation and had affirmed his intention that public interest considerations should drive FCC decision-making…if only performance had lived up to promise.

So it happened that in the very first year of the new administration, cable giant Comcast came knocking at the Commission door seeking approval to purchase majority control of the already huge and powerful NBC-Universal media complex. The proposal was daunting in both its breadth and depth. The merged entity would include media and telecom; broadcast and broadband; distribution and content; traditional and new media. I cast the lone dissenting vote. Allowing one mega-corporation to wield gateway and content power over TV, cable and broadband in markets around the country, I said, dooms consumer-friendly competition, curbs the diversity of voices that a diverse nation must hear, and confers power that no one company should wield.

Comcast’s power grab was not the end of it—not even close…And TV stations are hotter-than-ever commodities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision that freed up billions of super PAC and dark money dollars to purchase TV advertising and fattened the coffers of TV outlets.

“But wait,” you may be thinking. “Won’t the new media of the Internet cure the downsides of consolidation? Too bad about the shrinkage of news and journalism in newspapers, radio and TV, but they were headed into the ash-can of history anyways.” 

More after the jump »

A Letter to Journalists from a Former FCC Commissioner »

'“What a totally awesome job this is going to be,” I thought as I sat down at my desk. “I’ll be dealing with edge-of-the-envelope issues that are transforming the planet; I’ll meet the visionaries and innovators who are making it happen…And broadband, the savants told us, would bring the revolutionary wonders of the Internet to every home and hamlet. The new media of the Internet would complement the traditional media of newspapers, radio, TV and cable, ushering in a golden age of communications. News and information journalism would flourish, and America’s civic dialogue…would be nourished as never before.

My expectations were short-lived. It turned out that the FCC I was joining had an altogether different agenda. One of the first requests that I received from my new Chairman was to support a merger between two media companies…my waking hours would be spent listening to big media types tell me how their latest proposal to gobble up more properties would translate into enormous “efficiencies” and “economies of scale” to produce more and better news…everywhere I looked, I saw newsrooms being shuttered or drastically downsized, reporters getting the axe, and investigative journalism clinging to the slenderest of threads.’

In order to maximize profits and to finance their costly media transactions, the merged companies were under the financial gun to cut costs. The first place they looked to cut was, and is, the newsroom. Instead of expanding news and creating opportunities for journalists like you, they cut the muscle out of deep-dive reporting and disinvested in you and your future.

Then another light bulb went on: The public policy the FCC was making was a major force refashioning our media ecosystem. It wasn’t just the excesses of a Wall Street bazaar run wild. It wasn’t just private sector business plans wreaking all this havoc. It was proactive government policy-making. Government—my own agency—was the willing, indeed eager, accomplice in diminishing our news and disfiguring our journalism. The regulatory agency where I worked was actually making things worse. 

You need to know this story. 

To be continued…