When in 2009, the Federal Communications Commission announced that it had ordered a report on the future of media, liberal groups were over the moon—they expected the FCC to come out in favor of policies to reshape the media that they’d been advocating for years.
The final product released last week, however, ended up winning accolades from people like the folks at The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, which gave its hearty approval Tuesday. Meanwhile, those same liberal groups were left to steam about one more disappointment for the left from the Obama administration and to wonder if the FCC had just plain chickened out.
"It's clear they pulled some punches," said one communications attorney, who noted the effort had some unfinished sentences and a few blanks referencing other parts of the report, which went through at least five drafts, right up to the last minute.
When it was first announced, the project had an ambitious mission: examine the news and how it was serving citizens, and recommend policy changes for Congress, the FCC, and other agencies.
Just the idea of the report had the media industry concerned, especially because FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a law school buddy of President Obama’s, had the protection of the administration and a Democratic Congress.
Genachowski seemed to be signaling policies that threatened traditional media with some pretty provocative hires, like Stuart Benjamin, a Duke law professor who advocated taxing broadcasters and placing onerous regulations on stations in order to put them out of business and to free up spectrum for broadband, and Mark Lloyd, now the FCC’s associate general counsel and chief diversity officer, who’s been a lightning rod for criticism from the right.
But somewhere along the way, the report evolved into a middle-of-the-road, politically balanced document that will have little effect on policy and keep controversy to a minimum.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was one of the leading critics of the report from the left—he found the document, now titled “The Information Needs of Communities,” little more than a nice dissertation, more descriptive than prescriptive.
Meanwhile, groups like the liberal Free Press, which termed the report “a major disappointment,” felt it fell flat.
"This has been a very political FCC. They've been very attuned to the political climate. They didn't draw a lot of attention to this [report], which started with a lot more fanfare," said Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press.
The left wanted a blueprint for reining in an increasingly consolidated broadcast media and holding TV and radio stations to more stringent public interest obligations. They didn’t get it.
In fact, most of the recommendations contained in the report were for policies that actually fall outside the FCC's authority (such as tax certificate programs for minorities and changes in tax rules to help nonprofit news operations). Others, like making FCC disclosures electronic, were harmless, even sanitized.
"The policy prescriptions . . . don't follow from the diagnosis," wrote Copps.
While the left blasts the 475-page report, the right is lauding it, as is the media industry.
"The First Amendment dodged a bullet, and media experimentation prevailed," said Adam Thierer, senior research fellow for Mercatus Center at George Mason University. "I admire the restraint that was exercised in this report."
The WSJ’s ed board, which normally finds it difficult to say anything positive about the Obama administration, called the report “a rare display of bureaucratic modesty," said it showed “remarkable restraint from this administration,” and gave “good marks to the FCC.”