What, exactly, is the future of media?


This column was originally published in The Davis Enterprise on May 27, 2010.

I’ve written about media policy for nearly 15 years and can say I sometimes feel jaded. But put the words “state-run” in front of the word media, and I’ll admit surprise.

To provide some context, let me first recap the past few months. Media conglomerate Comcast proposed to merge with other media conglomerate NBC.  Partially in response, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been holding a series of public meetings to solicit public comment on its media ownership rules, as well as the impact of technological changes on journalism.

The FCC is tasked with being the public watchdog on such issues, and with evaluating media ownership rules to promote competition and diversity in local media markets. Though the proposed Comcast-NBC merger has been a nexus for criticism, there’s been a slow, steady erosion of media diversity in this country for decades. With each consolidation, jobs are lost, along with local perspectives.  What happens to democracy when local stories go uncovered or are limited in their perspective? This sort of question keeps me awake at night.

I should mention that discussion of Public, Educational and Government (PEG) access providers such as Davis Media Access were initially left out of these meetings, until the FCC was flooded with comments about the need to preserve community media outlets. DMA staff member Jeff Shaw attended the FCC hearing at Stanford University May 21 and was one of many to speak on behalf of community media and localism.

On the FCC front, one would hope for real discussion about what’s happening with the newspapers in our country, or about the need to implement a national policy that would address the digital divide. But what’s come forth is a policy animal of a different stripe. In short, there’s a proposal to move from a free and open Internet to one that is controlled by the federal government. This is something well beyond any debate about Net Neutrality.

The proposal originates with Rutgers University law professor Ellen Goodman, who serves as a distinguished visiting scholar with the FCC’s Future of Media Project. In official comments submitted to the FCC during the drafting of its National Broadband Plan, Goodman said that the FCC should shift from traditional local public broadcasting to a new “public media” centered on three goals: create, curate, and connect.

Goodman suggests using government bonds to create “public media” that will serve as a “filter” and a “megaphone” for a network of government-funded journalists competing with other, non-government-backed reporters. She positions her proposal as an attempt to redress the lack of involvement on the part of underserved, minority and economically disadvantaged populations in media.

New public media are needed, Goodman argues, to foster “virtual and real spaces” for “intelligent discourse” (managed by the federal government) free from the “commercial pressures” of independent, non-government media.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find the phrase “government-funded journalists” a little frightening. And I fail to see, truly, how a government monopoly on media will solve any of the above-referenced issues. It will likely do a dandy job of weeding out those critical of government policy, however.

Media powerfully influences how we think, act, and perceive our world. To take part in our governance, strengthen our communities, and connect with the world around us, we must be able to analyze and produce media on our own terms. That's something most large-scale commercial media deny us. Would the government deny us that as well? 

Autumn Labbé-Renault is executive director for Davis Media Access, an organization providing access to, and advocacy for, local media. She has written this column since Feb. 1996.