It is our hope that as President-elect Barack Obama assembles his team to deal with communications issues—his FCC chair, new tech policy czar and Commerce Secretary principally among them—he remains true to the ideals of fairnesss and openess. But the devil will be in the details and the definitions.
Diversity can mean helping preserve TV and radio stations by allowing those in smaller markets to combine resources and ensuring that the government does not try to silence its critics. Openness should mean reversing years of slapping “classified” on information the public has a right to see. Openness also should mean refusing to play politics with the news media or trying to shape public opinion by manipulating information. It should mean supporting a shield law.
Sen. Obama weighed in several times on the issue of media diversity, saying we need more and different voices. If he remains true to that promise, that should not mean wholesale re-regulation of the communications industry. While there are troubling signs that some are advising him to roll back the FCC's loosening of the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rule, that would be an overreaction. Newspapers, we all know, are hurting. Stations in midsize markets and below, and stations that don't lead in their marketplace, are having a hard time. In reality, if ever there were a time to help preserve editorial voices by allowing cross-ownership situations, it is now.
The current FCC has problems, and a soon-to-be-issued congressional report is likely to enumerate many of them. But after some 18 months of reviews and hearings, the commission's conclusion that the outright ban on newspapers and broadcast properties being co-owned should be modified to allow such combinations in larger markets, and under strict conditions in smaller ones, was not a reckless run toward media monopoly. Even the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the more liberal in the land, thought the Kevin Martin FCC had justified changes to the rule. If allowing a smaller-market minority-owned radio station and newspaper to combine keeps both in business, how is that a bad thing?
In the new administration, the commission will be led by an Obama-chosen chairman, with a majority of Democratic commissioners. If there were a fear that the Republican-controlled commission would turn the small-market waiver provisions into a large loophole, that can hardly be the argument now.
One openness issue should not be a tough call. That is reversing the Bush administration policies of hiding information from the public under the guise of post-9/11 national security. Fighting terrorism is a legitimate concern, but preventing the public from accessing necessary information makes a mockery of that vigilance. It also means Obama ought not to allow “embedded” military analysts or others to carry his message. That practice only exhibited the Bush administration's disdain for informing the public that put them in office. Obama should repudiate that attitude and make clear that he is ready to defend his policies in the open, not hide them in a stealth campaign that damages our reputation at home and abroad.