A Letter to Journalists from a Former FCC Commissioner
Joan Shorenstein Fellow, Fall 2013
Formerly, Federal Communications Commission
Read the full paper (PDF).
You may wonder why a long-time regulator like me is writing to you. The answer is that for more than a decade I occupied a front-row seat watching government policy undermine your profession and our democracy. I want to do something about it. I want you to do something about it, too. I worked at the intersection of policy and journalism as a Member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and saw first-hand how my agency’s decisions limited your ability to accomplish good things. Let me tell you what I saw.
I was sworn in as a Commissioner in 2001. “What a totally awesome job this is going to be,” I thought as I sat down at my desk. “I’ll be dealing with edge-of-the-envelope issues that are transforming the planet; I’ll meet the visionaries and innovators who are making it happen; and I’ll have a formative hand in crafting policies to bring the incredible power of communications to every American.” It was a heady time when even normally sensible people believed that technology had put an end to the business cycle’s ups and downs. And broadband, the savants told us, would bring the revolutionary wonders of the Internet to every home and hamlet. The new media of the Internet would complement the traditional media of newspapers, radio, TV and cable, ushering in a golden age of communications. News and information journalism would flourish, and America’s civic dialogue—the essential small “d” democratic conversation that self-governing citizens need to have with one another—would be nourished as never before. I was on fire to serve, confident that I occupied a position that would contribute measurably to making good things happen.
My expectations were short-lived. It turned out that the FCC I was joining had an altogether different agenda. One of the first requests that I received from my new Chairman was to support a merger between two media companies.[i] (I dissented, but it was approved by the GOP majority.) Little did I realize that, from then on, a huge slice of my waking hours would be spent listening to big media types tell me how their latest proposal to gobble up more properties would translate into enormous “efficiencies” and “economies of scale” to produce more and better news—something they knew was near and dear to my heart. Imagine listening day after day to these soothing assurances while at the same time, everywhere I looked, I saw newsrooms being shuttered or drastically downsized, reporters getting the axe, and investigative journalism clinging to the slenderest of threads.
[i] Michael Copps, “Statement Re: Applications for the Assignment of Chris Craft Television Licenses to Fox Television Stations, Inc,” (speech presented at the Federal Communications Commission, Washington D.C., July 25, 2001). See http://transition.fcc.gov/Speeches/Copps/Statements/2001/stmjc104.html
Read the full paper (PDF).