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The FCC's New 'Local' Focus: Too Little, Too Late?

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The new, nearly 500-page FCC staff report, "Information Needs of Communities", is almost certainly the longest government report on media in American history. Authored by former journalist and "Beliefnet" founder Steven Waldman, it is also remarkably well-written as government agency staff reports go.

A first-rate reporter in his day, Waldman covers an enormous amount of ground, despite the fact the final product is pared down from the scope of the intended report. Originally it had been announced that Waldman would write a "Future of Media" report designed to map out the media's relationship to democracy in the digital age and the government's opportunities to help facilitate their adoption. This was apparently scaled back to focus on the problems of local news and the "communities" that depend on them.

As the report makes evident, decent local news outlets are disappearing nationwide, with the result that far fewer newspaper reporters are covering "essential beats" such as courts, schools, and local affairs. In New Jersey, for instance, the number of reporters covering the statehouse dropped from 35 to 15 between 2003 and 2008. In California, the number fell from 40 to 29. Similar numbers can be found pretty much everywhere.

The situation for local television is far worse given how little serious coverage appeared there even during the good old days of large audiences and generous advertising dollars. Even calling local news "news" is a bit of a stretch. According to one study by the Annenberg School of Communications, actual "news" topics like coverage of state and local politics or issues facing the community earned barely a minute in the nightly evening news. (Murder and violent crime dominate, even when not local.) What's more, a number of news stations have taken to raising money through "pay-for-play" arrangements where local businesses get to send homemade videos and pony up for the privilege of posing as "news." There is not much local news at all on cable and the report regrets this, but judging by the quality of what's on the national cable networks, I do not.

This goes to a problem with the text. By limiting its specific argument to the slow-motion collapse of local news, the report skirts over -- and on occasion whitewashes--the myriad interlocking crises that threaten the entire American news ecosystem, and therefore threaten to undermine the crucial role it plays in ensuring the smooth function of deliberative democratic debate.

For it's not just local news that's disappearing, it's all news. Far fewer reporters and editors are being asked to produce stories in multiple formats, leaving less and less time for reporting and editing. As a result the news is thinner and less reliable. Add to this the proliferation of both of unchecked websites and right-wing ideological outlets at every level of the media food chain. And add to that the constant stream of misinformation emanating from the deliberately dishonest right-wing media that stretches from Fox News though Rupert Murdoch's entire empire -- The Wall Street Journal included -- as well as pretty much every single talk radio entity, the balance of which reach far more people than do virtually any other source. (Fox News gets more than twice as many viewers as CNN and MSNBC combined in prime time and right-wing talk radio more than doubles the audience of the combined viewership of the ABC, NBC, and CBS Evening News.)

The FCC staff report does not even dip its toe into the disappearance of actual "news" from the news and its replacement with nonsense -- which is the net result of all the above. Nor does it concern itself with the continuing problem of increased media consolidation and/or the disappearance of so much of investigative reporting infrastructure that is dying together with the media advertising-supported business model.

Moreover, consistent with so much of the Obama administration's ethos -- its proposed solutions are actually more amenable to conservatives than to liberals or even moderates.

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