The Progress & Freedom Foundation today filed comments in the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) "Future of Media" proceeding. Berin Szoka, Ken Ferree, and I urged the FCC to "reject Chicken Little-esque calls for extreme media 'reform' solutions," and counseled policymakers to move cautiously so that media reform can be "organic and bottom-up, not driven by heavy-handed, top-down industrial policies for the press."
Our 79-page filing covers a wide range of ideas being examined by Washington policymakers to help struggling media outlets and unemployed journalists, or to expand public media / "public interest" content and regulation. Among the major issues explored in our filing:
First Amendment concerns implicated by government subsidies;
The pitfalls of imposing new "public interest" obligations on media operators;
How advertising restrictions could harm the provision of media and news;
Taxes, fees and other regulations to be avoided;
The limited role in reform that public media subsidies can play; and
Positive steps government could take.
We note that as "With many operators struggling to cope with intensifying competition, digitization, declining advertising budgets, and fragmenting audiences, some pundits and policymakers are wondering what the 'future of media' entails. The answer: Nobody knows." While this uncertainty has put concerned policymakers at the ready to "help" the press, we warn that: "There is great danger in rash government intervention." Instead, policymakers should be "careful to not inhibit potentially advantageous marketplace developments, even if some are highly disruptive." Marketplace meddling, or government attempts to tinker with private media business models in the hopes that something new and better can be created, are misguided. Moreover, "Our constitutional traditions warn against it, history suggests it would be unwise, and practical impediments render such meddling largely unworkable, anyway."
We address several specific proposals to use public coffers to prop up the media--such as media vouchers, taxing broadcast spectrum, and expanding postal subsidies, among others. They believe that most of these stand on shaky ground, especially as they relate to press independence; First Amendment values; political strings, pressure and meddling; taxpayer promotion of failed models; and taxpayer-compelled funding of unwanted or offensive content.
The PFF comments also focus on the integral role advertising plays in supporting free media: "Advertising has been the hidden, unappreciated benefactor that has sustained a free press historically and policymakers should understand that an attack on advertising is tantamount to an attack on media itself." Accordingly, if Washington wages a war on advertising, media providers will suffer greatly.
We examine non-commercial media options, too. Though limited support can work at the margins, "policymakers should not view public media as a substitute for private media operations." If the government truly wants to help ailing media outlets and journalism, policymakers could relax media ownership regulations; allow non-profit status for media enterprises; and provide far greater transparency into its own affairs.
We conclude that the Commission should ignore sky-is-falling rhetoric and avoid "destroy[ing] the important wall between State and Press." Instead of imposing an industrial policy on the press, we urge policymakers to exercise patience and let creative destruction in the media marketplace play out.
While working on our FCC filing, we released a series of essays over the last month entitled "The Wrong Way to Reinvent Media" (see Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5).You can find all those papers, our big filing, and other related materials on this new PFF page dedicated to "Future of Media" issues.