FCC report: Government can’t ‘save’ journalism, but …

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Information Needs of Communities, a new Federal Communications Commission report, has a couple of admonitions for government: Be more transparent and get out of the way.

The public is best served by ready access to public information and respect for freedom of expression, and not by excessive or archaic regulations, the report notes.

“Congress shall make no law, and government agencies shall make no rule, abridging the freedom of speech or of the press,” the report observes. “Any government policy has to live within and respect the essential constraints of the First Amendment.”

That means that however tempted some public officials may be to intervene and bolster the business fortunes of the news media, legislation would inevitably come with handcuffs and restrictions that undercut the role of a free press.

“Government cannot ‘save journalism,’” the report said. “Indeed the media landscape is evolving so rapidly that heavy-handed regulatory intervention dictating media company behavior could backfire, distorting markets in unhelpful ways.  However, government can make it easier for citizens, communities and reporters — in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors — to themselves create new information systems and forms of sustainable journalism.”

The report makes the point that the tough economic environment for newspapers has led to a decline in  in the number of local reporters holding government accountable.  Part of that gap can be filled, the FCC notes, if both reporters and citizens can more readily monitor government activity through the  online posting of proceedings, documents and data.

The FCC report recommends that “governments at all levels should put far more data and information online, and do it in ways that are designed to be most useful.” The report emphasizes that data releases should include an application programming interface that would allow data to be more readily shared on networks and in applications.

“Putting more government data online will make it more likely that entrepreneurs can create new businesses and jobs based on distributing, shaping or analyzing this data. It will enable reporters to unearth stories in a day or two that might have previously taken two months,” the report says.

Among other recommendations in the report:

  • Streamlining  the regulatory system for broadcasters, making the process less onerous, but also holding stations more accountable for public service, particularly local programming. The report characterizes the current system as toothless, with forms being filled out that few see and none act on. By bringing greater transparency to the process, the report theorizes, the public rather than the government will bring appropriate pressure on broadcasters.
  • The repeal of what’s left of the Fairness Doctrine, a six-decades old requirement that broadcast content be balanced and fair.  It has gone unenforced since the 1980s and is clearly not applicable in today’s media environment, where there are more voices and wide-ranging views than ever before.
  • Clarification of the tax code to encourage tax deductible donations to nonprofit media.  If nonprofit media organizations are going to pick up the slack left by for-profit media, it’s important that their fundraising not be impeded by unclear provisions of the tax code.
  • Ongoing efforts to ensure universal broadband access, including strengthening  America’s libraries through the help and support of technology companies.

Overall, the report does note some silver linings: “In many ways, today’s media system is better than ever: faster and cheaper distribution networks; fewer barriers to entry; and more ways of consuming information.” Despite challenges to traditional news media, the report underscores the vibrancy of the media marketplace. Free expression is alive and well.

Related: FCC report finds major shortage of local news reporting

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