Center for American Progress

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

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

The FCC’s report on the disappearance of local news offers few solutions to the multifaceted crises facing American journalism, writes Eric Alterman.

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A new report from the FCC documents the shrinking number of reliable local news outlets, but that's not the only problem journalism faces. (AP/Stephen Chernin)
A new report from the FCC documents the shrinking number of reliable local news outlets, but that's not the only problem journalism faces. (AP/Stephen Chernin)

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. Its primary proposal is to shift the bulk of U.S. government advertising—$1 billion in 2005—to local media enterprises. "Targeting existing federal advertising spending to local news media could help local news media models — both commercial and nonprofit, online and off-line — gain traction and help create local jobs, while potentially making taxpayer spending more cost-effective.”

This is true, but it does not necessarily address the question of quality unless the people purchasing the advertising focus on this issue of quality and in-depth reporting on hard news and important social issues. Does this sound likely to you? Or are we more likely to see it going to those stations that “lead” with whatever “bleeds” (even if the blood is not local blood, alas).

This is not to say that the report is not valuable. It does contain a great deal of useful information as well as any number of useful, albeit marginal recommendations. One of these recommendations, for instance, suggests that “foundations and philanthropists help fund journalism-school ‘residencies’ for recent graduates who can help manage year-round efforts to produce significant journalism for the community, using journalism school students.” This would “enable journalism schools to significantly increase their impact in communities, while improving the quality of their instruction at the same time.”  

In fact, any number of journalism schools have begun the innovative process of  becoming news providers, but there are not enough of them to make a difference in more than a few communities. And the far bigger problem—I can say this as a journalism professor—is the fact that one wonders what kind of professional world these students are being trained for. How many of them will end up seeking jobs in public relations, or on websites or TV programs that actually add to the pollution, rather than real news? 

Most conspicuous is the fact that the report completely shies away from any direct use of government funds to at least provide a bridge to keep important journalistic institutions afloat during this time of financial crisis, as was bravely suggested in the Downie-Schudson report entitled “The Reconstruction of American Journalism,” issued by the Columbia School of Journalism in 2009. With so many important outlets being destroyed by uncaring corporate overlords or simply disappearing under the staggering weight of multimillion dollar losses—the fact is that even if we had great ideas to save journalism, there would be a time lag before they could come into effect. Nobody really likes the idea of say, a government-provided fund or even explicit tax breaks directed towards news dissemination, but if forced to face up to the loss of the kind of information needed to make democracy function, it is at the very least, a conversation worth having.

The explicit rejection of this option is one reason the report has proven so popular with conservatives, who are not only ideologically opposed to the notion—as are many journalists—but who also benefit from the corruption of the news cycle by conservative propagandists like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell endorsed the report’s findings as a “Keep Out” sign for government help. He told National Journal, “The government should keep its heavy hands off of journalism.” The report was also warmly received by the right-wing National Religious Broadcasters President Dr. Frank Wright, who added, “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, this report is a refreshing change. It refrains from imposing mandates, but instead recognizes opportunities to incentivize private media."

It fell to FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps to make the unapologetic case for the public interest, as it has so many times in the past. “The policy recommendations,” he complained, “don’t track the diagnosis.”

The problem, he so aptly explains:

America’s news and information resources keep shrinking and hundreds of stories that could inform our citizens go untold and, indeed, undiscovered.  Where is the vibrancy when hundreds of newsrooms have been decimated and tens of thousands of reporters are walking the street in search of a job instead of working the beat in search of a story?” In the meantime, he continues, “What hasn’t developed there is the model, mass or momentum to sustain the kind of resource-hungry journalism that an informed electorate requires. … We have never had successful dissemination of news and information in this country without some encouraging public policy guidance, going back to the earliest days of the young republic when Washington, Madison and Jefferson saw to it that newspapers were financially able to reach readers all across the fledgling young republic. … I don’t see any reason that we should forsake America’s workable past and deny our own history now.   

Sadly, Copps’s term on the FCC is just about up and America is about to lose one of it most honest and forthright voices for ensuring a vibrant and democratic discourse. In the meantime, the folks at Free Press go even further, “It is “stunning,” they complain:

 …that the report hedges, and even seems in some instances to embrace more destructive local media consolidation as the answer to the crisis in journalism. The FCC’s own data shows that prior consolidation and cross-ownership lead to an overall decrease in local news production. If the FCC decides to relax, waive, or ignore its own rules that prevent the formation of local media monopolies, it may temporarily help pad the profits of the large conglomerates, but it will not cure what ails journalism or the media industry.

Frontline’s executive producer David Fanning, speaking upon receiving the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award, proposed the creation of what he called a “Public Journalism Fund” made up of  “foundations, individuals, major donors, public money” that is able to “go out and simply get together the best journalists we can hire. And make sure to bring in with them a new generation of young reporters who are used to the daily demands, the drumbeat of reporting in the digital world.” This would be different, he argues, from “most new media/journalism startups — this has a business plan that works. It’s been proven: membership. People give to public broadcasting in ways that few other institutions can match.”

Fanning’s suggestion is a useful beginning. It won’t solve the crisis by any means but it will address some of the dangers that arise from it. Whether one believes in actual government subsidies or not, it is unarguable that a crisis exists and it is one that threatens the functioning of our democracy. As with man-made global warming, rocketing health care costs and declining coverage, and a set of economic rules and regulations that increasingly reward the wealthy at the expense of the rest of us, ignoring it is not a responsible option.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The NationThe Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.  

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Eric Alterman

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