New media giants should build a better town square

February 23, 2013 

America is engaged in a new revolution, a communications revolution, and this time Michael J. Copps is Paul Revere.

Copps, who retired in 2011 after 10 years on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is riding hard with the message that great corporate forces are invading our newly settled digital landscape and nothing less than our liberty is at stake.

Copps is sounding the alarm over media consolidation that has made us a nation that increasingly gets its news from conglomerates as local voices are being bought or dying out. The problem could deepen as the FCC is once more considering dropping restrictions against one media company controlling a newspaper and radio and television stations in some markets.

“If you just let it go down this road of consolidation and control by a few, that’s a denial of almost tragic proportions of the potential of the Internet and the potential of broadband to inform the citizens of the country, to create virtually a new town square of democracy better than anything we had before,” he says.

And that’s where the threat to liberty comes in. “An informed citizenry is the prerequisite of self-government, and if we play fast and loose with that, then we’re endangering self-government,” Copps says.

Copps, who currently heads the Media and Democracy Reform program at Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, D.C., brought his concerns to the Triangle last week. He spoke Wednesday at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (where he received a doctorate in history in 1968). On Thursday, he came by The News & Observer.

The N&O, like all newspapers, has lost reporters and other resources as the traditional model of advertising-supported news gathering has been hammered by a major recession, changes in advertising and the shift toward news – much of it free – on the Internet.

But even in their shrunken state, newspapers still provide a large share of the news found online, especially local news. One problem, Copps says, is government agencies such as the FCC have failed to demand that the conglomerates that dominate radio and television provide more substantial news content as a condition of using regulated airwaves and other paths of communications

“All this consolidation has really led to the substitution of infotainment for real news, and spin instead of substance and opinion instead of facts, and it’s had a very pernicious effect,” he says. “I don’t blame just the private sector for that. I blame the public sector and specifically the Federal Communications Commission for not being attentive to its public interest oversight responsibilities.”

That lack of oversight, he says, means broadcasters no longer face pressure “to put out the lifeblood of the news and information that democracy has to have if voters and citizens are going to make intelligent decisions about the future of the country.”

Copps, 72, recalls watching more than a half-century ago as anchorman John Cameron Swayze reported the evening news for 15 minutes on a 7-inch Motorola television. He said we look back on that as quaint, but we forget that those reports were generated by network reporters stationed in London, Paris, Rome, Bonn, Tokyo and other major cities. Today, foreign reports often feature a freelance reporter hired to show up at a hot spot.

“I don’t know that the news that we have now is so much better or even as good as the news we had back then,” he says.

Television, famously described as a vast wasteland by FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow in 1961, has added channels only to become an even vaster wasteland. But now it’s seen in high definition and rapidly being connected to new, but equally news-barren landscapes on smart phones and computers. The revolution in communications has made companies rich but the country’s civic dialogue poorer.

Making the media better servants of the public interest will require government standards and support. That doesn’t mean government interference in free speech, but rather government promotion of it.

The nation’s founders had the government support the post office to ensure that citizens got not just letters, but newspapers. And the government helped knit the nation together through railroads and the Interstate Highway System and the regulation of telephone service, radio and television.

But the advent of the digital revolution has coincided with a wave of deregulation and a faith in the market’s ability to meet public needs on its own. It’s not working, and ways must be found to make it work, Copps says, whether it be through enforcing lapsed standards, creating new ones, changing tax policies or providing subsidies.

“All I know is we cannot accept the situation that we’re in because this is not producing what it needs to produce to keep the citizens adequately informed and nourish the civic dialogue,” he says. “The problems with our media ecosystems are as serious as any problem we have in the country right now.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or

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