Media to FTC: Drop dead

It comes as no surprise that the national media is painted as having a liberal slant: a Google search for the terms “liberal media” nets 990,000 results, and critics have long blasted the media for supporting liberal causes. One would expect, then, that an industry facing financial turmoil would look to a traditionally liberal solution: government intervention. If recent backlash to a Federal Trade Commission report is any indication, that assertion couldn’t be more wrong.

The potential change of face comes after the FTC released a “Conversation Draft” on the future of journalism in May and hosted a summit at the National Press Club on June 15, the third of three meetings. The media response, while fragmented on some of the smaller issues of the 47-page brief, has been remarkably one-noted, simple, and libertarian: stay out.

Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at City University of New York, summed up his response with a nod to a cartoon parody of the elderly: “Get off our lawn!” he said at a panel during a FTC hearing in late 2009.

Jarvis’s response reflected the historical preference for the separation of media and government, but many watchdogs also chose to blast the report’s bias toward supporting traditional media.

“I’m hesitant to get Congress involved in activities like propping up newspapers,” says Christopher Daly, professor of journalism at the Boston University College of Communication. “It just seems like a gamble…on the future of that medium, and it’s not Congress’ job to pick winners or protect losers.”

The FTC report does explicitly state “proposals for action should not favor newspapers over other news platforms,” but many feel the recommendations show otherwise. “Hot news legislation,” for example, could alter existing copyright protections to cover the information in a news article as well as its text, blocking other organizations from reprinting articles or using the published information for a set amount of time. This may pose problems for news aggregators like the Huffington Post and Drudge Report (which print parts of articles with links to the originals), as well as personal and news blogs.

The draft report also includes a recommendation to relax anti-trust regulations to allow newspapers to “agree jointly to erect pay walls so that consumers must pay for access to online content.” Other proposals include issuing tax credits to newspapers for hiring journalists and creating “citizenship news vouchers” to allow citizens to allocate federal funds to nonprofit media organizations.

If this all sounds a bit statist, it may be because it is: the recommendations frequently cite media experts Robert McChesney and John Nichols, whose book The Death and Life of American Journalism supports a statist approach to supporting journalism. At a March workshop at the FTC, McChesney said in his statement that “[journalism] is something society requires…but the market cannot generate in sufficient quantity or quality. It requires government leadership to exist.”

Adam Thierer, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Washington, DC-based think tank, said the FTC draft smacked of protectionism, adding that market turmoil in the near future could actually help the news media in the long run. “There’s destruction, but then there’s creativity and interesting stuff coming out of that destruction,” he said. “Will new media fill whatever niche is left by the death of old? I’m not a technological Nostradamus, but I’m willing to let experimentation continue.”

Thierer said that some criticism of the report is unfounded—early responses to the draft identified it as a set of formal recommendations to Congress, not a collection of ideas the FTC may or may not support—but the draft is still to be read with caution. “The FTC has gotten an earful from people thinking it’s [their] plan,” Thierer said. “This is an inventory of various ideas and recommendations…but the fact that they’re even conducting this inventory makes us concerned that they’re interested in doing something, and it’s not clear what that something is.”

Despite its initial criticism, the report did garner support for many smaller ideas, including a proposal to streamline the sharing of public government records with the media by increasing the use of online databases and search software. These reforms have near universal support: “everyone’s agreeing on that,” Thierer said.

Another idea with broad appeal that was not included in the report was increasing consumer access to high-speed Internet service, which could promote access to online journalism. The recommendation was not included in the FTC report because Internet access is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Still, Daly said the idea is widely supported it supports journalism and other sectors of business.

“The roads to deliver the newspapers are a government responsibility,” he said. “But it helps many activities and helps everyone from bakers to oil companies. It’s easy to justify and easy to understand.”

Full Disclosure: Professor Christopher Daly instructed two separate courses in which the author, a summer intern at CommonWealth, was a student.

Our sponsors