USC forum explores new FCC transparency & accountability requirements

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission will propose a new “streamlined web system” regulatory regime for broadcasters, requiring licensees to file all information on the Internet in a publicly accessible and searchable form.

That promise came from Steven Waldman (pictured left), senior advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who spoke at a Washington, D.C. forum organized by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism to discuss the report, The Information Needs Of Communities: The changing media landscape in a broadband age,¬†which was released on June 9.

First came the good news: the U.S. is close to having “the best media system we have ever had,” and one reason is “microlocal news,” an innovation made possible by the Internet that was impossible until recently.

“Even a really, really profitable newspaper or TV station could not get down to the block by block level,” Waldman said. “Hyperlocal coverage is almost a new phenomenon.”

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Cinny Kennard (right), the award-winning journalist and news executive who is now a senior fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, was appointed to the FCC Working Group for the project. She described changes in media and journalism in the past year as overwhelming.

“This tornado of change is the biggest story I have ever covered,” Kennard told the forum, adding that sometimes major change even took place from hour to hour. “It was breathtaking.”

Allan Horlick, president and general manager of WUSA-TV in Washington, agreed, adding the changes are just beginning.

“This is just first half of the first inning,” Horlick said.

Then came the bad news: the FCC report, which relied heavily on USC Annenberg research, found that beat reporting – what Waldman called “full-time labor-intensive costly” reporting “to do accountability journalism” has suffered huge cutbacks in recent years as media companies lost advertising revenue and reduced editorial staffs.

One practice Kennard and Waldman identified as problematic was the increasing incidence nationwide of “pay for play,” where advertisers pay local stations to run stories and live reports featuring the advertiser’s product or service. According to the report, one hospital paid $100,000 for on-air mentions.

USC-37-XL.jpgPictured L-R: Cinny Kennard, Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, Steven Waldman
Photo credit: Sam Hurd

“It is actually already a rule that you are not supposed to do that without disclosing it,” said Waldman. But he added that viewers need sharp eyes to find the disclosure buried in fine print in the credits. As a solution, he said the FCC may now require stations to disclose “pay for play” on the Internet.

“If you have to disclose it on air, you [would now] have to disclose it on the Internet, permanently, in a searchable format,” he explained. “Disclosure can be more effective than [the current] system of license rejections.”

Waldman also called for a new partnership between the profession and journalism schools, what he called the “medical school model.” Kevin Klose, former president of NPR who is now dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, agreed.

It is not an accident,” said Klose,”that most [NPR] stations are at universities.” He also proposed partnerships with libraries and other academic institutions that incorporate “values of skepticism, independence, verifiability.”

George Rivera, executive producer of eHarlemTV in New York, took issue with Waldman’s focus on the promise of microlocal news.

“Every single time there has been an advance, from analog TV to cable to the Internet,” said Rivera, the promise was never kept. “It doesn’t change the fact that my community is not covered. It’s not about technology. It’s about quality.”

Waldman agreed that by any metric, diversity has lost ground in recent years.

“Minority ownership has gone in reverse. Minority employment in traditional media has gone in reverse,” he said, adding the trends for more diverse microlocal or online ownership are not encouraging.

“Look at the numbers in venture capital, “he said. “Minorities are underrepresented. We don’t believe the government is the main player in this drama. This really is going to be solved through entrepreneurship and innovation.”

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“Ownership is key,” observed Doug Mitchell (right), co-project director of an entrepreneur fellowship program funded by the Ford Foundation. “The next step in diversity is ownership.”

The FCC report, also included considerable criticism of the government agency itself.

“It is time for us to say out loud what most people in Washington have known for some time,” Waldman said. “‘Public interest obligations for broadcasters doesn’t work.” The FCC has granted 100,000 license renewals over the past 30 years, according to Waldman, while only four were rejected.

“I was really amazed at the end of the day,” Waldman continued, “that the Commission was willng to publish a report that was critical of the Commission.”

While the report has won praise from some, others said the report was still too weak. Prior to the report’s release, the FCC was criticized for a last-minute change in the report’s name and focus. Proponents of stronger measures included Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who read a statement¬†on Thursday saying the report was “not the bold response for which I hoped and dared to dream.”

Now that the report has been issued, some questioned its fate.

“A question of process: [now] what happens?” asked Joseph Bruns, executive vice president and chief operating officer of public broadcaster WETA.

“That’s my task for this week,” replied Waldman.

Photo credits: Sam Hurd

Download the FCC report, The Information Needs of Communities