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January 22, 2007

Comments

Dana Powers

This seems like a bad idea to me. FCC regulation of content is driven by the belief of scarcity. If there are only a small number of news sources, and those sources systematically report only one side of an issue then we should regulate in order to compel more comprehensive reporting - or so the argument goes.

But is this belief of scarcity tenable in the digital age? The internet has created an almost infinite array of perspectives from which to gather information: online newpapers, political blogs, personal blogs, zines, community websites, news forums, email newsletters, and on and on. If the response is that the majority of people still get their news from TV, then my retort is a) that is only because the FCC continues to treat radio spectrum as scarce, and b) do trend lines nonetheless indicate that the number of news sources consulted by this "TV majority" is increasing?

If your goal is deliberative democracy, perhaps a better strategy is increasing access to other media outlets - possibly through subsidies for computers, training, and internet access; possibly through deregulation of the radio spectrum; or possibly through education reform. But putting the FCC back in the business of deciding what is fit to print (and when? and how?) is not only patronizing, but it just gets the problem wrong.

Mark Sabec

I agree with your initial thought that, ideally, there would be some regulatory power over Internet news content to ensure that citizens receive a fair and balanced (pardon the "FAUX" phrase) representation of events. However, like Dana said, the Internet provides a plethora of outlets for wide range of opinions. Like Shirky posits, mere diversity of choices breeds inquality, as humans haven't the time nor access to sift through every opinion to find the facts on the Internet. As a result, we are faced with the dilemma of the "Daily Me" phenomenon, in which people actively seek out only the information they can most easily digest and also only what they are most interested in. The "Daily Me" results in a polarization effect--liberals become more liberal and conservatives become more conservative, and both sides end up knowning relatively little about opposing viewpoints.

Regardless of where technology stands in the situation, it is clear that *something* could be developed to help ease the dissemination of diversified news to the American public. What that product or technology is remains to be determined, but I agree with you that our current media equation is in a sad state of affairs.

Shane

I guess my initial response would be, if not the FCC, than whom? Perhaps an image of FCC smoky rooms and back door talks are what come to mind when "decisions" are made, but from what I can understand, it can be an altogether less insidious and downright positive approach.
A set of "national issues" is constantly put forth as focal by administrations (think fireside chats with FDR, to the current weekly radio addresses on Sunday, to Hillary's 'cute' discussions she's been having for the last 3 days online). Not that other issues won't and don't get discussed, but it's their chance to set the agenda for the week and discuss a common set of issues. I can easily see the FCC ensuring that the focal issues of the week are treated more even-handedly with less than ad hoc regulating measures. I draw my inspiration from the BBC's positive model of agenda discussion. The Brits actively fund and block off prime newstime real estate for BBC1 and BBC2, so that if people wanted to be informed of the national discussion, they knew that BBC 1 would be discussing it as a panel at 8, 6, and 10 offering plenty of room for a diversity of voices and *most importantly* ensuring talking time between major parties.
This fairness doctrine, at its crudest can be construed as a stretch for equal talking time by candidates and special interests. At its best, it's an embracing of the FCC as a lawmaking and funding source that can encourage a public square that is commonly recognized and understood by the citizenry. Iyengar makes just this point, deregulation has strangled our public broadcast system to the point of irrelevance and measures to rein in the big three (which might also be irrelevant by this point) have also failed to draw much support. I believe it was back in 92 when in the run-up to the election, all three major networks wanted to block out time every night for a major candidate to address the nation for about 5 mins- Bush on Monday, Clinton on Tuesday, Perot on Wednesday. Overall, those who did watch them were pleased with this change of events, but deregulation had made this a voluntary affair, so ABC would do it 7, NBC might tack the address onto the end of their news broadcast, while CBS might decide they wanted to run episodes of Touched By An Angel instead. Problem was, these major national issues weren't "blocked off". Once again, it sounds insidious, but it's really not. It's just an agreement, that for a small portion of the day (perhaps 6:30-6:45), that if the nation wants to watch some news, that no matter who they choose to view it with, they would be guaranteed that at least they're on the same page as everyone else. All other news programs are free to be just as extreme and whiney, but is it “getting the problem wrong” to want to reserve a time and place for the grown folks to talk?
Lastly, I do agree new media can help this process out, but remember the elderly and soon to be elderly cannot and do not engage these mediums. Perhaps a robust training program as Dana suggests might have merit, but think of the size of the FCC at that point and the varying levels of success that would come; in my opinion, that’s liberalism at its worst. Really, I guess all I’m asking of the FCC is to take a look across the pond and see that funding and nurturing of public broadcasting can actually be quite profitable and good for the nation. At its core, the fairness doctrine is a mandate to get creative about engaging the citizenry, which I think we can all agree is a positive step. But if you really think it’s asking the FCC to decide what’s fit to print, well I hate to break it to ya Dana, but administrations have been doing this for years we just proclaim that as a nation we see through it. Right, we’ll be seeing it all the way through to Tehran.

J D

It's a nice idea, but I don't see it working. First off, even if the FCC puts aside a certain amount of time each week to talk about certain topics on an agenda, how are they going to make sure that it's "fair"? Even if the FCC thinks that it's fully representing both sides, it seems prone to break back down into equal time for each position--otherwise, everyone's going to complain that their side isn't equally represented. Also, what criteria is the FCC going to use to determine which sides of the argument get to make it to primetime? (What if someone wants to get in on the global warning roundtable who thinks that the whole global warning issue is a conspiracy plot by Martians using their Gore-bot to distract us while they plan an assault?) Does a certain percentage of the public have to buy into that theory? How's the FCC going to determine that?

As alluded to before, the beauty of the internet is that it has opened a plethora of avenues to ANY position (if ridiculous ones, see above), all of which can be advocated and discussed.

One final point, even if the FCC figures out (1) what IS fair, (2) how to make media coverage fair, and (3) how to get Americans to watch "fair" coverage (another issue too long to go into here); they still have to make us believe it's fair. Perception is everything, and it seems unlikely to me that most people would actually see heavily regulated media as providing any more of a fair and balanced viewpoint as anyone else.

Shane

Best response I can think of, ask the Brits. They do most things best than us.
Is it difficult, absolutely.
Is it impossible, absolutely not.

(I also agree the internet solves a lot, but you will literally have to wait for a whole generation to die before adoption is significant enough, at least in my opinion)

I'm also bastardizing a lot of Shanto's arguments, but his point is solid enough. American deregulation pails in comparison to a more active (read:positive) interpretation of protection.

Shane

there should really be a way to correct typos

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