On May 21st, the FCC traveling road show will come to Stanford University in Palo Alto, California for the third of three field workshops on media ownership. Academics, pundits, and various other mucky-mucks will debate whether the explosive growth of online news and information means the old time print and broadcast outlets should be freed up to complete the process of buying one another up.
After years of delay due to the lawsuit Prometheus vs. FCC, the courts have freed up the FCC to make up their mind about how to proceed on modifying ownership rules. (And in the spirit of full disclosure, let me note the organization I lead, Media Alliance, is a co-plaintiff in the legal proceedings).
I appreciate the information-gathering process of going out and hearing from the country what they think about how the Commission should proceed. But I'm worried they won't hear from the 50% of the population who report television is their main source of news and information. I'm pretty sure, in fact, they won't hear from them because I've never seen an FCC field workshop announced on TV news.
So the people weighing in on whether online news sites are making ownership and content diversity in broadcast and print irrelevant are people who heard about the hearing online. People who are free to attend a hearing on a Friday afternoon at a leafy green campus not far from Silicon Valley in one of the most prosperous zip codes in the country.
I am sure they will be smart, articulate and thoughtful people. I am not sure they will be the people most highly impacted by changes that further reduce the already degraded quality of much news and public affairs coverage on TV and radio.
The information sources with the lowest barriers to entry are radio and television, which require only common and inexpensive household appliances to access. Not coincidentally, these outlets, along with a small cadre of community newspapers provide the vast majority of foreign-language news.
It may be more economically beneficial for outlets stressed by high buyout costs and loss of advertising revenue to consolidate news broadcasting into a single entity, but is it viable for public dialogue in a democracy to be limited to single voices across a diverse community?
People on the economic margins will never be the most favored demographic for advertisers. It's not rocket science that the best customers to buy things are those with more money in the bank. If there are only one or two giants on the block, the niche marketplaces that serve particular corners of a community will inevitably lose out: lose time on the outlets that exist or lose small outlets altogether as unfettered consolidation delivers them up as buyout targets to the big guys. We know the losses suffered in the Clear Channel evisceration of local radio to create a nationwide monolith of 1600+ frequencies, including as many as 4-5 channels in the same region, many programmed hundreds of miles away from the signal area.
So after years of clearly destructive consolidation, lawsuits, and an anti-media merger movement that inspired hundreds of thousands of Americans to write to Washington, we have a simple question being asked of us on May 21st. Does this really matter anymore?
Hell yes, it does. Do we want a nationwide conversation on immigration that doesn't reach most immigrant families, a public debate on the criminal justice system inaccessible to most incarcerated people and their loved ones or a discussion of senior support programs that many don't get to participate in because 1/3 of seniors aren't online?
When we cut off information access at the margins, we punish the most vulnerable. Individuals already living on the edge get less information and support, less knowledge of resources they need and a weakened ability to participate politically in the greater society. The larger society suffers from an impoverishment of its policy discourse, which become more and more a chorus of similar voices, basically those accommodated within a narrow ring of media outlets and those with the education and resources to take advantage of the blogosphere.
I love Internet geeks. They are some of the smartest and most humane people I know. They aren't everybody.
The broadcast media infrastructure belongs to the people. However lousy the current tenants might be, we owe it to the neighborhood not to consign it to irresponsible speculators who will leave us nothing but the news equivalent of vacant lots filled with weeds. Because the reality is some can't afford to move to a better news neighborhood yet. Public assets need to be protected as best we can for the public good. That's the FCC's job.
So Bay Area folks, give some serious thought to coming down to Dinkelspiel Auditorium at Stanford University on Friday May 21st. The workshop will run from 10am to 5pm, with a public comment section at 11:45am and another from 3:30pm to 5:00pm.