A herd of journalism-school deans wrote a predictable but also naive and possibly dangerous — and certainly not strategically forward-thinking — attack on media cross-ownership and the FCC’s loosening of its rules in today’s Times op-ed page.
They argue that the government should regulate local broadcast and make content demands on stations. That’s the dangerous part: government regulating news. The deans acknowledge the peril:
Journalists are instinctively libertarian, at least when it comes to journalism. We like the conversation about journalism and the federal government to begin and end with a robust defense of the First Amendment. That’s why journalists have not been leading participants in the debate over the Federal Communications Commission’s regulation of broadcasting, even though the future of our profession and its public mission is at stake
Yes, they said libertarian, not liberal. I hope that’s their sense of collective irony.
The naive bits are that government — more than companies and editors — should be held accountable for the quality of journalism, and that that broadcast journalism was ever worth a damn. At most and best, radio and TV distilled and read what newspapers published (and, yes, fewer radio stations today bother doing even that). Reporting on TV news has long been defined as covering fires and press conferences. It’s not about investigation. It’s not about a multiplicity of voices. It’s not about holding the powerful to account. It’s about stand-ups. For these deans not to acknowledge that — for them not to hold these stations and their producers and reporters responsible for what they call journalism and demand a higher standard — is itself shocking. That broadcast outlets have smaller staffs is, the deans say, “a real loss for American democracy.” Oh, come on. They’re just more efficient at covering fires. The deans sound like union organizers trying to protect headcount.
What disturbs me more about their op-ed is the lack of acknowledgment of the business realities of our industry: both broadcast and print outlets cannot operate as they have and that is why they need to consider merging — to survive.
But what disturbs me most is the lack of strategic ambition and imagination the deans exhibit. When the Times wrote a similar, knee-jerk editorial the other day decrying media consolidation, I argued that TV news could be improved if it merged with print and vice versa. I’d quite like to see the deans consider the idea that news is now omnimedia and it makes sense to stop separating newsrooms by old limitations of the means of distribution. It makes sense to get both newsrooms to produce the news in new ways. It could only help broadcast newsrooms to get a sense of real reporting and to get the work of hundreds of print journalists with cameras. And it could only help print newsrooms to be forced to think and work across media.
I’d have hoped that the deans would see the possibilities not only for the industry but also for their students. Now is not the time to preserve the past but to reinvent the future.
(Disclosure: It almost goes without saying but clearly I have a dog in this hunt as a journalism prof. The deans who wrote the Times op-ed are: Roderick P. Hart, dean of the University of Texas journalism school; Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy; Thomas Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland journalism school; Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School; John Levine, dean of the Northwestern journalism school; Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri journalism school; David M. Rubin, dean of the Syracuse school of public communications; and Ernest Wilson, dean of the University of Southern California school of communication.)