When the Federal Communications Commission returns to Dinkelspiel Auditorium today for a workshop on media ownership and the impact of new media on broadcasting, it will be addressing topics well-debated on Stanford campus. Stanford has seen its share of discussions about the decline of traditional journalism and the rise of digital media. Two weeks ago, the Center for Internet & Society hosted, “Future of Journalism: Unpacking the Rhetoric.” This past January, the Graduate School of Business hosted “The Future of Media.” Last October, the Department of Communication held its 44th Annual Carlos Kelly McClatchy Memorial Symposium, “New Times: The Future of Journalism.”
But what is often missing in these types of discussions and what will likely be missing from the FCC’s workshop at Dinkelspiel is any serious discussion about qualitative improvements in media fare. What media – traditional or new – are improving communities across America, especially those afflicted by severe inequalities? When do media – traditional or new – enhance democracy and lead to justice? When can we begin talking about the decline of bad media and the future of good media?
Surely, the FCC’s Media Bureau, which is heading the workshop, will balk at such questions. Media ownership rules, they will argue, have to do with the integration of market players. Structure and content are separate issues. The FCC only regulates structure. It is not in the business of judging the quality of content.
But as the noteworthy First Amendment scholar, Laurence Tribe, once said, so-called content-neutral regulations always imply some sort of judgment about the type of media content that is privileged in a society. And if there’s anything the last two iterations of the media ownership debate in 2006-2007 and 2002-2003 made clear, it’s that the structure of the media industry has a lot to do with the quality of what we consume on screen. During that time, community spokespersons and ordinary individuals made appeal after appeal to the FCC to block media companies from skimping on news and entertainment that educates, exposes wrongdoing and abuse of power, and relates to communities’ quality of life.
Though the media ownership debate of 2010 is unfolding against a different context than the one of 2006 or 2002, the concerns of citizens are no less valid. Relaxed ownership rules still have tangible consequences for public discourse. If the FCC relaxes ownership rules, we might see more of mass media’s deficiencies, not only made available through traditional distribution channels, but also re-published online.
What would benefit an FCC-sponsored discussion on media ownership is not more showcasing of new services or software, for example, that decentralizes taste-making to users or that monetizes and distributes advertising revenue to agencies, advertisers, and ad networks or that repackages traditional media content for new media platforms. (In fact, the FCC could learn about the impact of new media on broadcasting by gleaning from the plethora of public and academic forums about this very topic.) Rather, what would benefit a discussion on media ownership is a consideration of when media innovations provide witness to, give voice to, inform, or assist communities and individuals in need, and what motivates those innovations.
In other words, Media Bureau, think more broadly about what media innovation means. Often times, it’s neither the business plan nor the technological design that propels media history but a person, a community, a culture and their support of a belief or idea. Fuzzy as this may seem, the process I am describing comports with basic assumptions about why media matter to society in the first place: people are the ones who power democracy and justice. Not micro payments. Not new social media. People. For the purposes of quadrennial review, the Media Bureau would do well to pay attention to a history of media innovations based around milestones in political, social, and cultural change.
To get there, the Media Bureau ought to be opening discussion among citizens – ordinary individuals as well as community representatives – about how media serve communities’ needs <I>in light of the claims being made<P> by of tech evangelists, defenders of traditional media, proponents of deregulation, and the hodgepodge of other anointed experts. Far from being massive deliberations, these can be small and focused. (Let media reform activists, public interest organizations, affinity groups representing citizens, news media, universities, or other interested parties take responsibility for continuing the conversation.)
Though the Bureau is to be commended for hosting a series of workshops in advance of issuing a proposed rule, it can – and should – go further to improve the quality and scope of the debate.
Seeta Pena Gangadharan
Doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication