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the Seattle Times

Democracy and Media

Michael J. Copps

An important government meeting was once called but closed to the media. The assembled leaders produced a 5,000-word document, finalized early enough to be manually typeset by the close of the proceedings.

Within weeks, it was reproduced by newspapers in every state. It came to preoccupy the nation's signed and unsigned editorialists, as well as its political reporters. It prompted conventions across the nation - which we know far more about because they were all open to the media.

The document was ultimately endorsed with some additions, most notably language addressing the role of journalism in a free society.

The document is of course the U.S. Constitution, the string of anonymous op-eds is now known as the Federalist Papers, and the little-debated addition is the First Amendment.

James Madison's original draft in the House of Representatives spoke of the press as one of the "great bulwarks of liberty," echoing language first put forth by the Virginia ratifying convention. But Congress adopted the more economical formulation we know today.

It is enormously revealing that our nation's popular press literally predates our foundational political document, and played a key role in its formation. After all, in Europe, where the power of government remained solidly in the grasp of elites at the end of the 18th century, there was no obvious need or demand for a popular press covering - let alone criticizing - the acts of government. But in a democracy - where every citizen is allowed and expected to vote - a professional, independent, objective media is fundamental.

Today, the U.S. is vastly more powerful and richer than in the heady days of Madison and the Constitutional Convention. But do we currently have a media system that would make our Founding Fathers proud?

I fear not. We have a system that has been buffeted by an endless cycle of consolidation, budget-cutting, and bureau-closing. We have witnessed the number of statehouse and city hall reporters declining decade after decade, despite an explosion in state and local lobbying. As the number of channels has multiplied, there is far less total local programming and reporting being produced. These days, if it bleeds, it leads.

Interested in learning about local politics from the evening news? About 8 percent of such broadcasts contain any local political coverage at all, including races for the House of Representatives, and that was during the 30 days before the last presidential election.

Interested in how TV reinforces stereotypes? Consider that the local news is four times more likely to show a mug shot during a crime story if the suspect is black rather than white.

What has caused this appalling degeneration of our media? One factor, I am ashamed to say, is the abdication of responsibility by regulators at the Federal Communications Commission. We allow the nation's broadcasters to use spectrum worth billions of dollars, supposedly for programming that serves the public interest.

Once upon a time, the FCC actually enforced this bargain by requiring a thorough review of a licensee's performance every three years before renewing the license. But during the market absolutism of the Reagan years, we pared that down to "postcard renewal," a rubber stamp every eight years with no substantive review.

It is time to do better. The FCC needs to reinvigorate the license-renewal process. We need to look at a station's record every three or four years. And let's actually look at this record. No more rubber stamps. Did the station show original programs on local civic affairs? Did it broadcast political conventions? In an era where too many owners live thousands of miles away from the communities they allegedly serve, have these owners met with local leaders and the public to receive feedback?

Another factor is the FCC's woeful record of stepping aside to allow wave after wave of consolidation in the broadcast and print business. Though there are rules on the books designed to prevent too much cross-ownership of TV, radio and print properties in a single market, we have not enforced them with the rigor they deserve.

Far more troubling was what the FCC tried in 2003 - over my strong objection - to relax the cross-ownership rules. The agency actually voted 3-2 to allow a single company to own up to three TV stations, eight radio stations, the daily newspaper (a monopoly in most towns), the cable system and the Internet service provider.

Thank heavens Congress and the courts stepped in to overturn that terrifyingly bad decision. But now the agency is considering changes to these very same rules.

I say this is hardly the time to rush headlong into more of what we know has not worked given the wreckage caused by our decades-long flirtation with the notion that Wall Street always knows best when it comes to journalism.

As the FCC and America move forward into the brave new world of media in the 21st century, I hope we can agree the public interest is not just another way of saying "corporate profit maximization."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, my personal hero, once said in a letter to newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, "I have always been firmly persuaded that our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public from the counting room."

The same is true of broadcast journalism. Consider the fact that the existence of local news in Spanish in a market can boost election turnout among Spanish-speakers by more than 10 percent. No dollars-and-cents calculation is going to take account of that extraordinary boost to our nation's democracy.

If technology and changes in the economics of the news business have made the old ways impossible, we need to find new ways to develop a media system that can serve democracy. That is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

I take great comfort from the conclusion of another critic of the current media system, Walter Cronkite, who said, "America is a powerful and prosperous nation. We certainly should insist upon, and can afford to sustain, a media system of which we can be proud."

Let's work together to show that it can be done. Our democracy demands it.

Michael J. Copps is a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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