Editorial: Saving News Media—and Independence

The FCC's senior advisor on the future of media thinks there could be a role for direct government subsidy that wouldn't run afoul of First Amendment concerns. We're not so sure.
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According to Steven Waldman, the FCC's senior advisor on the future of media, the commission is not planning to nationalize the media, and should take into account the radical changes in the landscape when deciding what shifts to make to its ownership rules—and the FCC has signaled it will be making some changes.

Waldman is a former print journalist with Web experience who says he does not buy into the journalistic stereotypes of new-media players as guys in their pajamas, or traditional media as pterodactyls on a glide path to the tar pits. All that was good to hear since he is responsible for coming up with a report to the chairman about what, if anything, the government should do in the face of the changes affecting (or “battering,” or “exploding,” or “fill in the blank”) the news media model.

On the issue of media ownership, Waldman says that concerns about consolidation are still valid, but he adds, “It is also true that the barriers of entry for new-media competitors are much lower than they were, and that has to be a factor.”

We agree. But Waldman says that the FCC is not out to save traditional media, that his policy input could range from the national broadband plan to the media ownership review, and that he feels there could be a role for direct government subsidy that would not run afoul of First Amendment concerns about influencing content. Maybe, but it will take a lot of convincing for us to believe that there would not be some attendant content chill with the government's hand anywhere near the purse strings.

Waldman has drawn a line in the sand between structural regulations and meddling in content—which we will hold him to—though the less meddling the FCC does with regs, the better, we say.

All that said, Waldman's declaration that he is not interested in saving traditional media was unsettling. But, he added, his concern was not to save any one company or medium; it was figuring out how the public could be best served by news and information in a changing media world.

Traditional media share that goal. In fact, traditional media are becoming new media, too, out of necessity. According to Waldman, the FCC is not out to save local newspapers, but maybe broadcasters can if allowed to join forces in smaller markets.

We continue to believe that, at baseline, the FCC should scrap the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, which prevents what is essentially Multiplatform 101—combining local broadcast and newspaper strengths—in a world racing toward Multiplatform 2.0 and beyond. At the same time, the FCC's good intentions should not translate into a government-assistance model that in any way threatens the independence of commercial journalism.

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