Broadcasters, Media Reformers Prep for Obama Presidency

NAB, RTNDA, Free Press hope President Obama will be "media-friendly" as advertised.
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Broadcasters, media activists and others are lining up to catch the ear of the new administration, looking for an opportunity to push initiatives backing their divergent views of “media-friendly.”

Broadcast journalists, for example, like what they see in terms of Sen. Barack Obama's support of pro-journalist legislation, but have some concerns about his treatment of the media as a candidate and as President-elect.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and other members of the Sunshine in Government Initiative see a chance to reverse the over-classification of information under the Bush administration, as well as break up a logjam of Freedom of Information requests, some extending back years.

In a letter last week, RTNDA, NAB and others asked the new administration to make withholding information the exception rather than the rule, create an ombudsman, ban government agencies from backing any laws to create more disclosure exemptions, and to make a habit of speaking on the record about important issues and have senior officials and aides do the same.

OPEN AND TRANSPARENT?

The Obama transition team has pledged an open and transparent administration the likes of which Washington has never seen. While RTNDA sees an opportunity given Obama's pledges of government openness, the association's president, Barbara Cochran, also has some concerns about follow-through.

“While President-elect Obama has supported the important legislation backed by journalism groups such as RTNDA,” Cochran says in outlining the group's view of the new administration, “it remains to be seen what day-to-day relations with the press will be like in the Obama White House.”

Cochran adds that during the campaign there were “strains” over access to Obama. “He went long periods of time without holding a news conference,” she says, “and he wasn't very accessible to the press that traveled with him. There was definitely some restlessness among the troops about that. But he has been great on the issues and policies that create a more open and transparent government.”

Just last week, a news director e-mailed Cochran that a couple of radio reporters said they had been excluded from an Obama press bus trip to cover a Veterans Day event. They were told it was a TV event only, Cochran says, though the radio reporters later received a pool feed from an NPR reporter.

Also last week, the transition team scheduled a “pen and pad” press conference with John Podesta, co-chair of the transition team, that excluded TV and still cameras. Transition team spokesman Tommy Vietor says it was an issue of space. Cochran says she will reserve judgment: “You always have these feeling-out periods.”

Also seeing an opportunity to advance a much different agenda, media consolidation foe Free Press sent out a fund-raising e-mail to its members last week proclaiming that the Obama administration represents a chance for an “unprecedented transformation of U.S. media.”

Free Press Executive Director Josh Silver pointed to Obama's strong support for network neutrality, his opposition to media consolidation and his support for public broadcasting, saying his election “rekindles hope that media reform may finally claim its rightful place in American politics as a bona fide political issue.”

Free Press also warns that the new president will have a lot on his plate, including the woeful economy and two wars. But Silver told members that they must make sure Obama “makes good” on his campaign pledges.

Also trying to keep media issues on the radar screen for the new president is Mark Lloyd, VP for strategic initiatives at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Lloyd believes access to over-the-air TV is a civil right, and says it is important for Obama to lead a more coordinated effort to educate consumers about the digital conversion. Lloyd thinks it would be “wonderful” if Obama uses his “bully pulpit” to talk up the DTV transition.

The Government Accountability Office recently advised the transition team that “ensuring an effective transition to DTV” was one of the most urgent policy concerns the new administration needs to be addressing.

MARK THAT DATE

The Obama transition team had not returned an e-mail request at presstime about whether someone there was monitoring the transition. Asked about the DTV transition at a press conference, Podesta said the administration knew it would be an early challenge, and “we need to be ready and prepared for that.”

Broadcasters may have a little more work to do in the education department, since Podesta could not come up with the exact DTV transition date (Feb. 17, 2009), saying, “I don't have the date stuck in my head.”

E-mail comments to jeggerton@reedbusiness.com

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