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Journalism is in hour of 'grave peril,' says top government regulator

December 1, 2010 |  3:41 pm

Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps is taking aim at the state of television news, which he says is "in its hour of grave peril." In both an interview with BBC World News America that airs Wednesday and in a speech at Columbia University's School of Journalism he is to deliver Thursday, Copps charges that the media is falling far short when it comes to serving the public.

American media is not "producing the body of news and information that democracy needs to conduct its civic dialogue," Copps said in an interview with the BBC's Katty Kay. That trend, he added, has to be reversed or "we are going to be pretty close to denying our citizens the essential news and information that they need to have in order to make intelligent decisions about the future direction of their country.”

COPPS But Copps, who has never been shy about criticizing big media, doesn't just point the finger at them. He says his own regulatory agency allowed much of it to happen through deregulation that cleared the way for a massive consolidation in the industry.

In his remarks to Columbia, which his office provided to the Los Angeles Times, Copps writes: "The place where I work — the Federal Communications Commission — blessed it all, encouraged the consolidation mania, and went beyond even that to eviscerate just about every public interest responsibility that generations of reformers had fought for and won in radio and TV."

As for the digital revolution being able to fill any void left by traditional media, let's just say Copps' Columbia remarks reveal a bit of skepticism:

“What,” you say, “peril in a 500-channel universe? Peril when the touch of a search button delivers a veritable library of mankind’s acquired knowledge to our various digitally fueled devices?  Peril when we can chat online with strangers on the other side of the planet as easily as our parents talked with their neighbors across the backyard fence?”

Though Copps acknowledges there is much to celebrate, he notes, "Increasingly, the private interests who design and control our 21st century information infrastructure resemble those who seized the master switch of the last century’s communications networks." Furthermore, he argues that though there may be many more platforms both on TV and online, the news itself is coming from fewer sources.

In his remarks, Copps paints a grim picture of today's media. He notes that more than half of the 50 states have no full-time reporter covering Capitol Hill. He cites a study by the USC Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism's Norman Lear Center showing that the average 30-minute local news broadcast has less than 30 seconds devoted to local government news. (The research was focused on Los Angeles news broadcasts.)

"If it bleeds it leads, but if it’s democracy’s lifeblood, let it hemorrhage," Copps cracks.

The FCC has oversight over local TV and radio stations but not the broadcast or cable networks. Local stations get licenses from the commission to operate. Copps wants to toughen up the renewal process, which he says today is a "slam-dunk, no-questions-asked" procedure.

Copps wants stations to commit to covering more debates and issues-oriented programming during election years. He also wants stations to be more in touch with the communities they serve.

Writes Copps: "Nowadays, when stations are so often owned by mega companies and absentee owners hundreds or even thousands of miles away — frequently by private equity firms totally unschooled in public interest media — we no longer ask licensees to take the public pulse. Diversity of programming suffers, minorities are ignored, and local self-expression becomes the exception."

-- Joe Flint

Photo: FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. Credit: FCC.

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