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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

What Does It Mean to Have a Public Interest Obligation in a Digital Age?

Published:  February 23, 2010
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Between increasing media consolidation and the economic downturn, many local media outlets are finding it tough to stay in business, and communities are being left with less local news programming staff as stations sometimes opt for programming that is cheaper to produce.

Panelists at a January 12th FCC workshop on media ownership came together to provide answers to this problem that were both predictable and provocative. The first panel discussed the financial issues facing large markets and broadcasters, and the predominantly finance-oriented speakers largely agreed with each other that less regulation from the FCC is necessary for investors to be drawn to provide investment in media properties. The Internet is already crawling with diverse perspectives and free information, they argued, so why not let media owners operate unencumbered.

What intrigued us most was a clip from the proceeding (See the video at 71:10 for 15 minutes) where, Steve Waldman, Senior Advisor to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, pushed the panelists to discuss how, in all the talk of financial interests, deregulation of media ownership might serve the public good.

A second panel that focused on smaller broadcast markets provided more hope that media owners do consider the needs of the public, not just those of investors. Radio industry veteran Rick Peters, co-founder of the Southern-based Bluewater Broadcasting, spoke passionately about the role of local media and the capacity of the federal government in legislating media ownership. “You cannot mandate a sense of mission, and you can’t mandate a sense of purpose,” said Peters, who believes his radio stations and many others are still engaged with the needs of their local communities (his comments are at 154:40)

Since everyone agrees that local media continues to be relevant and important we are left with the question: how should the government, media owners, and investors find a sustainable model for maintaining their engagement with the needs of the public? Of course these questions are intertwined with questions of ownership and consolidation and it seems Waldman is also interested in the impact consolidation will have on making local coverage (See 197:30).

New America is hosting Steve Waldman on February 25, and we're hoping he shares more of what he was thinking.

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