Currently circulating among the FCC commissioners is a proposed inquiry into the future of broadcast journalism, which by extension means the future of journalism as a whole. Print, cable and the Internet are all part of the news ecosystem in which the broadcast news business is functioning, or not functioning so well, as the case may be.
Former acting chairman Michael Copps circulated the proposal shortly before giving up the big chair to Julius Genachowski two weeks ago, so it's not clear what will eventually emerge, but there is no time like the present to take a hard look at an increasingly tough business. That is, so long as the inquiry tees up the issues, keeps its thumb off the scale, and is intended to find a way to help broadcasters preserve local news rather than take it as a chance to impose new regulations under the cover of compassion.
Copps was saying the right things: “I think the purpose of this is just to start off saying: 'What is the reality…of news right now.' The way people receive the news has changed so dramatically. It is not just through the radio or TV or newspaper. The Internet is starting to come into its own. There has been reallocation of resources in many of these companies. And we really need to understand what the reality of the situation is.”
We are told that the proposal offers a range of possible actions for discussion, including an antitrust exemption so news outlets could get together to talk about getting together. It also mentions the public-funding model for news that some have proposed, including at a Capitol Hill hearing on the future of newspapers. It asks for input on whether consolidation has helped or hurt news and public-affairs programming, but also asks whether regulatory relief might help or hurt the situation. Then there is the suggestion of possibly requiring stations to do news as a condition of their license, but only if the inquiry concludes there is a problem and that is the solution.
We don't think inviting the government to get any more involved in broadcast programming is the way to go. But if it is truly to be an open dialogue, all ideas should be available for discussion, if only to be exposed to the disinfectant of sunlight and stronger counter-arguments.
Both Copps and Genachowski have talked about collecting data and starting with a dialogue on the issues rather than a conclusion to be supported. We would hold them to that in any inquiry where the future of broadcast news, and perhaps broadcasting itself, is at stake.
The news business was hit hard by the economic downturn, but it was already facing a sea change thanks to the Web. If broadcasters were too leveraged, they were not alone in failing to see the economic tsunami. It is time for helping hands, not pointing fingers.
It is in that spirit that we would endorse an FCC inquiry.