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Jack Myers

Jack Myers

Posted: May 20, 2008 08:12 AM

Retiring Newhouse School Dean Warns of Media Inattention to News, Public Affairs and Robust, Relevant Debate


"Traditional media are managing from fear," warns David Rubin, who is retiring this month as dean of the Syracuse University S.I Newhouse School of Public Communications after 18 years. "Media consolidation," he comments in an exclusive interview with JackMyers Media Business Report, "was done with so much debt it has allowed bankers and Wall Street into the tent, resulting in too much of the profits being required to pay off debt. Public ownership of media has not been good for media quality or for the ability of media owners to manage for the future," he argues.

What worries Rubin most is "local news and public affairs are under siege. How to make money with news on a local level is among our most important issues," he says, explaining the exploration and creation of new economic models to support local news and public affairs will be a primary research focus in the future.

In his convocation speech to this year's graduating Newhouse students, Rubin asked "how is it that technology has dramatically transformed the media, yet all of this new media content has not done more to transform society for the better?" To make matters worse, digital technology caused a particular problem for media owners whose mission is news and public affairs. Digital media, often as an unintended consequence of their development, have broken the old economic model supporting the traditional news media.

"Craigslist and other aggregators of information online took away classified advertising, a mainstay of newspaper revenues. Google's model of targeted advertising has called into question the strategy of mass advertising, damaging magazines and newspapers. The audience for network television news has been eroded by cable and Internet alternatives.

"In this environment, it became a real risk to take the high road and give the public what it needs, and not necessarily what it wants, which are often two different things. Indeed, the pressure has never been higher on the old media to hold onto their audiences, and that encourages pandering and appealing to the lowest common denominator."

Rubin also believes "Americans have lost sight of the value of wide open and robust debate. There is far too great a sensitivity to speech people think is offensive and too many Americans think criticism should be met with lawsuits." He adds, "The First Amendment exists to protect offensive speech, yet this country seems to be offended by what each individual finds offensive." A part of the problem, Rubin suggests, "is politicians who don't talk honestly about what the country needs to hear."They need to say what people need to hear even if it upsets people -- especially if it upsets them. We need politicians who talk honestly to people about the issues we are facing. This [presidential] campaign to date," Rubin adds, "has been trivial and focused relentlessly on the war in Iraq and the economy. Once the Democrats get their house in order, I hope they'll start talking seriously about health care, economic issues, national security, our public infrastructure, the educational system we need to be globally competitive, our cultural policy."

In his convocation address, Rubin challenged presidential debate moderators to avoid asking "the same questions over and over, hoping to provoke a candidate to trip up as if this were a game." Rubin explains he "decided to see if I could come up with better, more enlightening questions for the candidates in just one area, one I know the most about, and one that should be of interest to journalists and citizens alike: freedom of speech and press. I made a list," he said, "of questions and realized that I don't know anything at all about the positions of [Senators] Clinton, Obama and McCain on any of them, despite all the debates and the months of daily media coverage."

Following are questions Rubin would like the Presidential candidates to answer.

"First, in appointing future Supreme Court and Appeals Court justices, what views on the freedoms of speech, press, assembly, petition, and religion would you want these persons to hold?

"Second, how would each of you handle access to your Presidential papers upon completion of the term? Do you believe you have ownership, or does the public have ownership and a right of access?

"Third, how would you as President instruct executive branch agencies to respond to requests under the Freedom of Information act? Would you facilitate the public's right to know about what the government is doing, or would you opt for secrecy?

"Fourth, how often would you hold press conferences?

"Fifth, how comfortable are you with the current definition of classified information? What should be truly secret, versus what is only embarrassing? How long would it take your administration to declassify information?

"Sixth, what is your position on the subject of indecent speech on radio and television? Was the FCC correct in penalizing broadcasters more harshly in the past six years for bad language and sexual content?

"Seventh, where do you stand on Net Neutrality; that is, the question of access to Internet service? Do large users of bandwidth deserve special privileges, or should the internet be regulated like the old Ma Bell?

"Eighth, what is your position on the current level of media consolidation, and would you support loosening rules on how large cable systems and broadcast groups can be?

"Ninth, what do you think about student free speech? Should high school students be able to publish newspapers without censorship, or demonstrate on school grounds?"

Rubin asks if any of us know what any of the candidates think about these issues, suggesting that experts in other fields could come up with similar lists of unasked questions. "How sad this is for our political process," he adds.

Pointing back to local market news issues, Rubin believes his city of Syracuse, New York is representative of most U.S. cities and towns. "In Syracuse we have one provider of information about the city, the Syracuse Post Standard newspaper. Local TV got out of the serious news business a long time ago and citizens can't hope to get serious information about how the city is governing itself from TV or radio." [Rubin points to Hearst Argyle as an exception.] "Looking at Syracuse, he explains, the NBC affiliate is owned by an investment private equity firm and before that was owned by the Alabama State Pension Fund. The CBS affiliate is owned by Granite, a minority owned public company that's under capitalized with too much debt. The ABC affiliate has been owned by Clear Channel. Nobody is local -- nobody knows the market; they all are in it for the money. They are stations where not much money is being invested and a lot is being taken out. It's no different in other cities around the country."

"I wish we had a Hearst-Argyle station," he adds, "but we don't and most cities don't. Some stations are still doing the jobs you routinely saw 20 years ago, but it is increasingly rare and this is short sighted. The primary value of local TV is to provide local public affairs presence but I don't see this happening and it's an issue for the future of local TV." Rubin adds that commercial over-the-air radio rarely has a commitment to local public affairs.

"Given that the medium most stressed is newspapers and they are cutting news staffs, which are the only thing that stands between the public and ignorance, then it is really dangerous. If newspapers go away, then what? If there is no economic model to support them, there will be no way to inform the community." Rubin acknowledges "citizen journalism is an interesting addition to the mix, but I don't trust them, I don't know who they are. I trust trained reporters more than a group of citizen journalists."

Speaking of the Bush Administrations impact on First Amendment rights, Rubin explains "the Bush administration has brilliantly realized the First Amendment does not provide journalists with the tools to gather information. It only guarantees the rights to publish it. Bush has been brilliant at reducing what journalists know. They have increased the definition of what is classified; taken information out of the public domain; they have terrorized administration sources by threatening them with jail if they talk to journalists; and punished people in government who are caught talking to journalists. They have instructed agencies to be less responsive to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. If journalists know less, they will publish less. Today, it is much more difficult to learn about our government."

Rubin believes this will change. "None of three candidates will be as bad, and I believe [Senator] Obama will be greatly better, so I see light at end of the tunnel," he says.

This year, the Newhouse School of Public Communications had 4,000 applications for 345 freshman spots. Dr. Lorraine Branham, currently director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, joins S.U. on July 1, 2008 as Newhouse dean. Rubin will remain in Syracuse, where he has a weekly TV program, through the election. Following his first sabbatical in 38 years and extended travel with his wife, Tina Press, Rubin will return to teach a communications law course that will be required for all Newhouse students under a newly implemented curriculum that Rubin spear-headed. "We are a great school of communications," he says, acknowledging "an excellent faculty, the Newhouse family [that has underwritten one of the world's largest communications educational facilities], supportive alumni, increasingly talented students, and all those who have hired our students over the years."

In his convocation speech almost 15 years ago in 1994, Rubin urged graduates to use their skills to address the problems that were then challenging our country: "a broken health care system, racial and ethnic divisions, a culture of white collar crime, and failing city schools." This year, he asked "Do these problems from 1994 sound familiar? Add in the war in Iraq and the energy crisis and you have a good picture of today's societal ills." With the proliferation of media choices, the challenge to universities today is to educate and train the next generation of media industry leaders to use these media choices for the public interest and necessity, not only for profits. Dean Rubin's voice has been a vital one for nearly two decades and JackMyers.com looks forward to providing continuing access to his commentaries.

To contact Dean David Rubin, e-mail him at dmrubin@syr.edu and add your comments and tributes below.

 

2008-05-15-jmresize.jpg This post originally appeared at JackMyers.com.

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