Federal regulations designed to ensure that broadcasters serve the public interest are broken, allowing stations to dump local-news reporting and lowering standards for news ranging from international developments to government scandals, the Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday.
"Over time, court rulings, constitutional concerns, and FCC decisions have left a system that is unclear and ineffective," the agency said in a long-awaited report on the U.S. media. "The current system operates neither as a free market nor as an effectively regulated one; and it does not achieve the public-interest goals set out by Congress or the FCC."
The 470-page study turns the tables, with the FCC reporting on media outlets that usually are the ones doing the reporting.
To promote public-interest programming on public airwaves, the report recommends more disclosure from broadcasters. It also calls for C-SPAN-like public-affairs networks in each state.
Too often, the report asserts, the FCC rubber-stamps broadcast licenses without ensuring that the outlets involved cover the local community.
Further, the proliferation of Internet-based news outlets has not improved the quality of journalism, the researchers found.
"It turns out you can have an abundance of media outlets and a shortage of real news," said the report's lead author, former journalist Steven Waldman. At the root of the growing dearth of quality reporting, he concluded, is the fact that advertising is increasingly disconnected from content.
"If ad rates were the same online as they are in print, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Waldman said. In a first for the agency, the report urges lawmakers to consider the "positive benefits" of online tracking when drafting privacy legislation. Such tracking, the report states, offers a possible way for news websites to attract more ad revenue.
To help strengthen the public service potential of media, the report makes six broad recommendations: emphasize online disclosure as a pillar of FCC media policy; make it easier for citizens to monitor government by putting more information online; consider directing more existing government spending to local media; foster an environment for nonprofit media outlets to succeed; promote broadband access; and ensure that media policy helps historically underserved communities.
The highly anticipated report didn't go far enough for Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has long called for tighter public-interest regulations.
"Enlightened policy that promotes the public interest is basically glossed over by the staff report as having been tried and failed," Copps said at Thursday's commission meeting, where the findings were presented.
He took the report's authors to task for "tinkering around the edges" by not calling for major overhauls. "In the recommendations, there is some hedging about whether all that consolidation we are living with today-all these local, independent stations bought up by mega-media interests-has been good or bad," Copps said.
But Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell said that the report highlights the competitive and innovative nature of the media market. Regulations and policies will only hurt, he argued. "The government should keep its heavy hands off of journalism," McDowell said.
McDowell stressed that the report is only the beginning of a debate over potential solutions.
The findings contained few surprises in their evaluation of the media market, noting that many traditional news outlets have been decimated by economic challenges and shifting technology.
Hardest hit, the report found, is local-news gathering. While so-called hyperlocal (or neighborhood-based) reporting is better than ever thanks to new technology, news at the city and state level is "struggling mightily," with an especially significant decline in accountability reporting. The report argued, however, that national news remains vibrant while international reporting is a mixed bag.
"Our biggest fear is a slow, steady lowering of standards and expectations regarding what kinds of information Americans are entitled to," the report states. "It is easy to see how this could happen. A shortage of reporting manifests itself in invisible ways: stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time, local elections involving candidates about whom we know little."
The report notes that the First Amendment prevents government from wading directly into the media market. "Nonetheless," it acknowledges, "greater transparency by government and media companies can help reduce the cost of reporting, empower consumers, and foster innovation."
That limited approach brought praise from industry groups.
"In an age where some have argued that the federal government has increased its reach over an increasing number of private sectors of American life, Steve Waldman's future of media report is a refreshing changes," Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, said in a statement. "It refrains from imposing mandates, but instead recognizes opportunities to incentivize the private media."