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FCC Officially Launches "Future of Media" Inquiry

The FCC formally launched its
inquiry into the future of the media and the information needs of communities
Feb. 18 with a pledge to keep the First Amendment top of mind.

"Formally" because Steve Waldman, who is
spearheading the project, has already been on the job for several months
putting together a cross-agency team and starting to gather information. (See
related: "Waldman: No FCC Bailouts inStore for Media") Waldman gave a brief primer on the project at the
end of the FCC's public meeting Thursday. 

The starting point of the FCC's inquiry will be the First Amendment, he said,
adding that any time the government looks at the media it must be "very,
very careful."

Another starting point will be the first workshop on the issue, scheduled for
March 4. Waldman said that it would focus on TV and radio stations, saying
there had been a "newspaper centrism" to the future of media
discussions heretofore.

Waldman is a former print journalist (at Newsweek and U.S. News
& World Report
) and said his allegiance to free speech was not just
rhetoric but the convictions of a "journalist on hiatus."

Following the presentation, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski echoed that
sentiment, saying that the process would be open and fair (boilerplate for his
goal of a more transparent agency), and "consistent with the vital goals
of free speech in a democracy."

The chairman also gave a shout-out to the late CBS newsman Fred Friendly:
"I want to acknowledge my personal debt to [Friendly], who symbolizes so
many great things about the country, journalism and the media.  He stands
for a commitment to investigative journalism, news and information."

Waldman said the goal is to insure that communities have vibrant and diverse
sources of information, and to figure out whether the FCC's policies are suited
to that goal at a time when the media landscape is changing dramatically and
choices are proliferating, but the traditional business model is collapsing.

He echoed his purposely vague timetable to B&C that a report would
be produced by the end of 2010, but said he knew he would soon have to provide
more specificity.

Both Waldman and Genachowksi gave shout-outs to FCC Commissioner Copps for his
passionate interest in the issue. 

Copps praised the project, saying the FCC had no more important business in
front of it. He suggested that once the broadband plan has been completed,
maybe some of those staffers could be turned over to the future of journalism

Waldman came last on the meeting agenda after a lengthy broadband plan update,
which prompted Copps to suggest that maybe Waldman felt a little like the Lone
Ranger following that crowd. If so, he said, he would be happy to be Tonto.

Copps said it was time for action--and soon. "Time is not our friend
here," he said, "Journalism's decline moves measurably forward by the
month, so this is not the time for a long, drawn-out process, and I believe
Steve agrees with that.  With journalism's fuel tank fast approaching
"empty" in so many localities, a leisured pace would only make an
already dangerous situation totally untenable. This Commission has a
responsibility to keep that from happening."

Commissioner Robert McDowell had to exit the meeting early to catch a plane but
issued a statement raising questions about the FCC's authority to take any steps
other than teeing up the issues. Waldman has said that providing policy
recommendations is one of his report's charters.

"Should government have any role at all in any effort to preserve or
change journalism?" asked McDowell in his written comment.
"Furthermore, what are the constitutional, legal and policy implications
of such efforts? How would the freedom of the American people be affected
by any government action beyond the solicitation of comment?"

McDowell went further, suggesting that reports of the demise of journalism are
premature. "I fundamentally disagree with certain opinions that some may
bring to this ongoing conversation. As the son of two journalists, I certainly
recognize that the business models which supported professional journalists
throughout the 20th century are in the midst of great upheaval. But as a
student of history, I don't equate today's transition period, as uncertain as
it may be, with the imminent death of American journalism or a lessening of the
media's ability to support the functioning of our democracy."