Now the FCC cares about journalism

First John Kerry and then the FTC fretted about journalism and what government should do and now FCC Commissioner Michael Copps is swinging his worry beads. CNSNews.com (I hadn’t heard of it before) says Copps is circulating an internal Notification of Inquiry (a step toward rule-making) about journalism and TV hinting at requirements for stations to provide journalism in the public interest and at possible government support.

Journalism and TV: an oxymoron? Well, not always. But often. Local TV news has sucked for years – that horse is out of the barn, over the horizon, and in the glue factory already. Fluff and fires, that’s most of local news on TV. So what is Copps lamenting?

The local broadcast business is going the way of newspapers, only a bit behind and more slowly and without all the attention of self-obsessed print reporters. So what’s to protect?

Local TV news still has, amazingly, the trust of its audience. And it still makes money. So there is a business there. Too bad there’s just so little journalism there.

So I say that Copps shouldn’t be protecting the incumbents or goading them to make more of the same. If he wants to do anything, he should be encouraging new players to compete with local TV and grab some of their attention and dollars.

Scratch that. I don’t want the FCC to do anything that has anything to do with journalism, news, and speech. It’s a bad idea.

The one thing the FCC could do that would encourage more creation of content online, more audience to use it, and thus a better business model would be to get ubiquitous broadband throughout the country. That is the FCC’s job. So, Commissioner, get on with it, please.

  • http://www.fathom.net Suzi Craig

    I was JUST about to start bristling in this piece Jeff until you wrote, “Scratch that. I don’t want the FCC to do anything that has anything to do with journalism, news and speech. It’s a bad idea.”

    That sums it up for me.

    Re: business of local TV news – is it local anymore? Content is canned for the most part and journalists have little say as to what they produce. Yet, some (very few) are taking the reigns and using Social Media to connect with their audiences: http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2009/06/12/facebook_and_twitter_help_boston_stations_reach_new_viewers/

    I think that’s the key – journalists have to take charge and fight for producing stories that matter to their audience, not what the business school suits think will help sell ads.

  • Matthew Terenzio

    . . .get ubiquitous broadband throughout the country.

    AND insure that Net-neutrality is preserved rather than quietly sliding us toward the controlled distribution channels that we just heroically escaped from.

  • http://www.familygreenberg.com/index2.php Brian Greenberg

    I have found a surprisign dearth of true, local reporting online. Websites or newsfeeds that purport to be about my hometown (in northern New Jersey) are often about New York City, or generic stories about New York’s suburbs. If I want to know what’s going on with the local high school, with the mayor of my town, or the town council, etc. the best way to do it is still the local (free) newspaper or the public access channel on TV.

    Granted, Twitter and Facebook are filling that gap better than blogs ever did, but they’re not organized enough yet to trump true, local reporting. Not saying they’ll never get there, only explaining why the local news is lagging behind the big boys in their march to oblivion.

    As re: the FCC – yes, you’re correct about them staying out of it. This doesn’t require a “bailout.” Let the market evolve & the winners emerge victorious…

  • http://www.clarkblog.org/ Chieftain

    Here in SW Washington, we have no local TV station, and that leaves the “News” reporting to Portland, OR TV Media, or one newspaper on this side of the river. The local rag is in bankruptcy now, and will likely emerge with the same players firmly in place, ergo, the same failed business plan. The markets will eventually sort that out, and the same goes for broadcast TV stations. Survival of the fittest applies.

    Most local broadcast media are excellent ambulance chasers and nobody covers those drivers in LA who keep fleeing from the police better than the many local TV News choppers. The only role the Federal Government has in that would be regulating the airspace they fly in to prevent them from falling out of the sky on top of someone’s house.

    I’m glad you qualified your opening remarks, because getting the FCC more deeply involved in broadcast television than they are already is a really bad idea.

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  • Tex Lovera

    YEah, the Friggin’ Commie Committee will take care of the Big O’s new best friends. They did such a good job with “The Digital TV Transiiton”, too (show of hands as to who’s BETTER OFF after that fiasco??).

    I think local TV news still has the “trust” of its audience only because (A) they don’t seem to want to piss off anybody and (B) our other traditional news sources are horrid alternatives.

    I’m with Jeff – get rid of the FCC and let the chips fall where they may.

  • http://www.francispage.com Christopher Francis

    Requirements to provide “journalism in the public interest” are a bad, bad, bad idea.

    First, who’s defining “public interest?” The public or the government (or “gub’mint” as some of my fellow Arizonans pronounce it). For that matter, who’s defining “journalism,” too? Is the “gub’mint” going to tell station not to cover all those fires and fluff because it isn’t “real” journalism? Try telling that one to people who call us at our station wanting to know why dozens of cops are surrounding a house on the east side.

    Local TV news, in my humble opinion, still has audience and profitability because it has a more direct connection to viewers… even it if is all those fires and fluff. Anyone remember WBBM’s attempt at a Nightline-style show with Carol Marin at 10? People didn’t watch.

    Those of us who want something better for local TV news wish it weren’t that way, but it is. By and large, the product is shaped by viewer demand. If they demanded something different, and it made money, we’d put it on. A quality control standard set by the FCC is so flagrantly against the 1st Amendment, you wonder how people in government can even support it.

  • http://www.derekdevries.org Derek

    CNSNews.com (Cybercast News Service) is a right-wing “news” organization that was founded by L. Brent Bozell III to push a conservative agenda (which usually means attacking people like Michael Copps who support public broadcasting and don’t acquiesce to every corporate whim).

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Cybercast_News_Service

    Commissioner Copps is a good guy – he’s long been one of the minority of voices on the FCC concerned with the quality of journalism. He’s been a passionate advocate for net neutrality, pushed for increased access to broadband, and he’s been very vocal in his opposition to media consolidation. He’s not protecting the incumbents.

    Copps’ main beef is that the FCC rubber-stamps TV/radio stations’ applications for licenses and they’re no longer required to serve the public (by producing quality news or other educational programming in exchange for being able to profit from the broadcast spectrum – which is a public trust we all own).

    The context for this story is that the corporate conglomerates who own the traditional broadcast media are pushing for further consolidation and arguing that they need to do even less to serve the public because they say the newsgathering function is being served now by the Internet. (Meanwhile, out of the other sides of their mouths, those same corporate conglomerates are trying to eliminate net neutrality so they can retain their stranglehold on the mass media through a system that favors the wealthy).

    The basis for this report is probably to rebut those arguments for more consolidation (and fewer standards for programming that serves the public good).

    Here’s a good interview with Copps on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS:

    http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/08242007/profile.html

    More:

    http://www.democracynow.org/2007/11/1/fcc_commissioners_adelstein_and_copps_decry

    http://broadbandcensus.com/2009/06/copps-still-committed-to-network-neutrality-optimistic-on-broadband-fcc-reform/

  • Marco

    @ Derek

    The argument people make against consolidation in media, is the same argument people made against IBM, and Microsoft. They own too much of the market and will be able to dictate their terms to the market. Yet, what broke IBM’s monopoly power was Microsoft, and what broke Microsoft’s power was Google … and on and on.

    I’ve worked at a number of very large corporations (two were oligopolists), and I can tell you first hand; market dominance will do little to help you in an imploding market … you will just own more and more of a smaller pie.

    That being said, the main thing that allows these conglomerates to retain control longer than what a free market would dictate, tends to be fools in Washington D.C., who claim to be protecting ‘the workers’ while doing the bidding for these large corporations (see ‘Saving Main Street by bailing out Goldman Sachs’).

    Want to know who helped block the Yahoo-Google search deal? No other than poor Microsoft! The lesson Microsoft learned from their anti-trust problems … hire more lobbyists! Microsoft does not dominate search because of Google, not because of some rule the FCC put in place.

    Believing (or worse, repeating) the mantra that the FCC and people in Washington are just trying to help out the little person, is naive at best; and self-defeating at worst. Special interest still runs Washington … subsidize local news, and you’re actually subsidizing a lot of large corporations (McGraw Hill, Gannet, etc.), of course, no one points out the large corporations that own the outlets.

    The main thing that has separated the US from Europe is our willingness to tolerate creative destruction … and not letting politicians meddle with industry to keep weak (but influential) players alive. Let’s let local news compete on their own against start-ups on equal terms … the entrenched players are already better resourced … no need to subsidize them too!

  • The Internet

    It’s not a “Notification of Inquiry,” it’s a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), and it is not in practice a step toward rulemaking. Few FCC rulemakings start with NOIs and few NOIs end up in rulemakings.

    As one former FCC chairman described it — while he was still chairman — an NOI is a “heat sink” — a means of dissipating heat on a subject without taking any action.

    Congressional oversight historically has not been fond of FCC NOIs because they look like talking without doing anything, even though it is basically good and reasonable to collect data before proposing to act.

    Michael Copps is a brilliant and courageous commissioner, but I doubt that FCC rules to affect the practice of journalism are going to become a high priority at the Commish under the new chairman.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      That’s very helpful.

  • mja8b9

    HEY! I work in local TV and I can tell you we are not just fluff and fires, there are also car accidents and daily reports on what you need to be scared of today.

    I can’t stand the FCC, everyone should hate them.

    Conservatives should have a problem with a government regulating the free markets and taking over the traditional roles of a family and liberals should have a problem with the censorship of freedom of speech.

    You can see some of the FCC’s most public hammer blows at:

    http://www.newsy.com/videos/cursing_on_tv

    We should get rid of the whole thing… bet that would save some money.

  • http://www.derekdevries.org Derek

    @ Marco

    Indeed – I absolutely agree with you that on the whole, Washington DC does not have the public’s best interest in mind, and that lobbyists from corporate interests have long stifled innovation when it suits them (variously supporting or opposing consolidation). I also agree completely that the FCC has done a great deal of damage to everything from free speech to technological innovation.

    Copps, however, is not cast from the mold of the typical politician. That’s why I singled him out. I’ve always found him to be his own man, not beholden to campaign contributors or private industry. That’s why he’s frequently critical of the FCC’s actions.

    To that end, I would never say that “the FCC” is trying to help out the little person – that’s certainly rarely true as the appointed leadership of the FCC is too often acting directly on behalf of monopolists/oligopolists (as Kevin Martin and Michael Powell illustrate).

    My point is that we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Copps has frequently taken principled stances on a number of issues (like net neutrality, and increasing broadband access for all Americans – both of which are essential if online startups are to be able to compete with the established/entrenched traditional power structure), and I think he would respect Mr. Jarvis’ input if he were approached. His position on requiring journalism from the broadcast media is earnest and comes from an antiquated understanding of the new economy – not from lobbyist-inspired avarice.

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