The Knight Commission...or the Benighted Commission?

Guest blog from Patrick Maines, president of The Media Institute, a nonprofit think tank specializing in First Amendment and communications policy issues.

The Knight Commission: Much Ado About Nothing

As in the title of the book about Southern belles, We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier, the report of the Knight Commission, released last week, is in some ways amusing and in other ways annoying. It amuses in the way that it showcases the most pedestrian observations as though they were the product of unique and weighty cerebration. It annoys in the way that it pretends to a kind of grandeur and perspective-at precisely that moment in history when either would be useful-that it simply doesn’t possess.

Officially called the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, the commission is a collaboration of the Aspen Institute and the Knight Foundation (assets pushing $2 billion), which paid for it all. Early on, the report makes clear that this is a commission with uncommon ambition and a high regard for itself.

Referring to the earlier Hutchins, Carnegie and Kerner commissions, for instance, the Knight Commission co-chairs write, “In pursuing our work, we have been well aware that we are following in the path of other [emphasis added] distinguished Commissions.” This, while a “background” document states that the commission’s goal is to “start a national discussion-leading to real action.”

Given such a lofty calling, one would expect the commission’s observations to be trenchant and uniquely insightful. One would be wrong. From the foreword to the appendices, the Knight Commission report is a veritable cornucopia of the mundane, sortable into three categories: things that are already happening and should be (like rapid broadband deployment by the private sector); things that are happening and shouldn’t be (like the codification of the FCC’s net-neutrality principles); and things that are not now happening and never will.

The best example of the latter comes in the commission’s recommendation No. 12 (of 15). So as not to lose any of the rhetorical flavor of this recommendation, I quote parts of it verbatim: “Imagine,” they say, “a ‘Geek Corps for Local Democracy’ where, as a post-college opportunity, American youth volunteer to help connect a physical community to the networked infrastructure…Geek Squad participants would teach community members how to use technology…A Geek Corps would weave together the local and the national through networks of passionate youth. Ideally, such a program would have the same stature as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, such that participants would be welcome into jobs with open arms.”

Open, shmopen. The notion that vast numbers of “post-college” American youth would (or should) line up for such a thing is the kind of idea that is dreamed up only by government bureaucrats-and non-profit organizations that think like them. How about getting or creating a job in the networked infrastructure, paying taxes, and buying things with whatever’s left over as might help the economy?

Speaking of rhetoric, that’s the other thing about the Knight Commission report. Approximately every other paragraph, even the short ones, has the density of a black hole, so that after wandering into the first sentence you find yourself being stretched thin, like a strand of linguine, and by mid-graph are frantically searching for a way out of the thing.

This said, if the only problems with the Knight Commission report were its immodesty, dense language and commonplace insights, one could just ignore it completely and go about one’s business. Unfortunately, however, the report is also marred by something else, specifically the timing and nature of its recommendations in the context of what is happening in the real world.

As it happens, on the very day that the Knight Commission released its report (on the premises of Freedom Forum’s Newseum, another billion-dollar foundation), the government announced that unemployment in the U.S. had reached 9.8%, and that more than 7 million people have lost their jobs since the onset of the recession, not to mention the millions more who are working fewer hours than they would like or have given up looking for work altogether.

It is also a time when there is scarcely a state or municipality that is not on its financial uppers; when the national debt and federal deficit are at record highs; and when personal bankruptcies, home foreclosures and credit card defaults are in the stratosphere and climbing. To say that these data constitute an ongoing tragedy, and the deepest kind of threat to every person in this country, is not the tiniest exaggeration.

Enter into this environment a Knight Commission report whose recommendations are notable mostly for their exquisite attention to what, in the realm of communications policy, are little more than the most politically correct sentiments. In this fashion, the report endorses things like governmental transparency, higher education, public libraries, broadband availability, net neutrality, diversity of media ownership, young people, old people, and ensuring that “every local community has at least one high-quality online hub.” (If only there’d been an opportunity to say something about global warming.)

In other words, the Knight Commission report is frivolous and ill timed. This is the kind of report–with its recommendations of greater funding for public broadcasting, “public digital displays of news and culture,” a “federal tax credit for the support of investigative journalism,” and the aforementioned Geek Corps for Local Democracy–that should be released, if at all, only at a time when the country is so prosperous that people who should know better might actually go for it.

It didn’t have to be like this. It would have been possible, even at this time, to create a commission that investigated the information needs of communities, in the context of our economic crisis, that was relevant and helpful. It just didn’t happen.

To paraphrase Groucho Marx (”I’ve had a wonderful night, but this wasn’t it”), you can find some stimulating ideas about the future of journalism and the information needs of communities, but not in this report.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.