The FCC is to be commended for launching the quadrennial media-ownership rulemaking review before it was required to do so. Waiting until 2010 would have been one more delay in a host of them that have kept broadcasters guessing about how to proceed, while operating on waivers and crossed fingers.
But the FCC also needs to be cautioned about how it frames the review of those rules. It got plenty of advice last week from academics, public interest groups and broadcasters, though in separate workshops so the sparks had to fly in absentia.
To hear some of the public interest groups tell it, the near-economic collapse and ensuing financial fallout, with millions of jobs lost and many broadcast and print outlets operating on life support, is merely a cyclical downturn. There is no cause, they say, for taking a fresh look at rules that keep some broadcasters from creating a multiplatform model that is likely the future of journalism.
This posture in fact exposes these groups' single-minded determination to make broadcasters pay for the sin of being stuck with too much debt when the economy tanked and their business model was turned on its head by the Internet. In their eyes, the recessionary steamroller becomes merely a cycle when the alternative might provide a legitimate argument for deregulation.
Forget “might”: The FCC needs to throw out the ban on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership. It is an artifact of a world that has utterly changed. Some consolidation foes say, with a straight face, that the Internet does not represent a sea change in the media model, and that broadcasters are just using that ruse to get the deregulation they want. Even if that were the motive, it would not change the fact that the Internet has fragmented the audience to the extent that the model for making broadcast journalism work is in trouble.
The reason the FCC is so concerned about localism and diversity in broadcasting is because broadcasting is so important to meeting the local information needs of the community.
Did some broadcasters overextend themselves? Of course, as did banks and home buyers and lots of other people. They did not ask for the Internet to come along and change the media world at the same time the financial world was spinning out of control.
George Mahoney, VP and general counsel of Media General, advised the FCC to get out and talk to broadcasters and the advertisers who want the multiple platforms that combined station and station-newspaper combos can provide. He also urged the commission to talk to the financial community, which is looking for an upside before it lends, and then decide what needs to be done.
We agree. And if the FCC does that, it should become clear that rules preventing broadcasters from competing on a reasonably level footing with the mass-media forces massed against them are not in the public interest.