BY ROBERT ROMANO | FEBRUARY 26, 2014
What the heck do we need a Federal Communications Commission for?
Whether it is net neutrality, the Comcast-Time Warner merger or its proposed "Multi-Market Study of Critical Needs" receiving a lot of attention thanks to a Wall Street Journal oped by Ajit Pai, the sole Republican commissioner of the agency — the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sure is making lots of waves these days.
Perhaps a question everyone should be asking, though, is why do we need an agency to determine whether Verizon can charge Netflix for broadcasting on its server? Or to determine if Comcast-Time Warner will somehow take up too large a share of the marketplace?
Or to figure out if, on the basis of media ownership, "critical information needs" are being served to so-called "underserved" communities?
Just consider the absurdity of the study Pai called attention to. Specifically, the FCC apparatchiks will be attempting to, per the study proposal, "ascertain the process by which stories are selected, station priorities (for content, production quality, and populations served), perceived station bias, perceived percent of news dedicated to each of the eight [critical information needs], and perceived responsiveness to underserved populations."
Writes Pai in the Journal, "The FCC says the study is merely an objective fact-finding mission. The results will inform a report that the FCC must submit to Congress every three years on eliminating barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and small businesses in the communications industry. This claim is peculiar. How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the CIN study include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?"
Good questions. Perhaps an even better, deeper one is why we even need an agency to supposedly "eliminate barriers" in the communications industry in the first place?
The Communications Act was created in 1934 to "to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service…"
The agency was chartered on the premise there was limited bandwidth of the public airwaves and barriers to market entry. Yet, with thousands of television channels, radio stations, and millions of websites including web-streaming services to choose from, and seemingly limitless ways to transmit via satellite, broadband and other means, it seems the only limits that once existed were merely technological.
In the end, innovation achieved what the FCC never could. Now the only barrier to broadcasting is a video phone and a free Youtube account. There is no need to regulate media ownership when everyone has the ability to create and distribute their own media.
Don't like Comcast? Switch to Verizon. Or Cox. Or any of the multitude of other providers out there that are competing on price. Tired of paying for cable? Get Netflix. Or Amazon Prime. They have movies and television shows. Want every football and hockey game live? Get DirecTV.
There is no lack of competition. And with the limitless technology at our disposal, there never will be. That is, unless government screws it all up.
Every four years the FCC is required to produce "limits on the number of broadcast stations (radio and TV) an entity can own, as well as limits on the common ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers… [and] to determine whether the rules are in the public interest and to repeal or modify any regulation it determines does not meet this criteria," according to the agency's website.
In that vein the "Multi-Market Study of Critical Needs" is not unusual at all. It is one of hundreds of studies and analyses the agency does to provide information for its quadrennial review.
The last such review in 2010 stated clearly at least the stated intent of the rules: "The Commission has relied on its media ownership rules to ensure that diverse viewpoints and perspectives are available to the American people in the content they receive over the broadcast airwaves."
It goes further: "The Commission has regulated media ownership as a means of enhancing viewpoint diversity based on the premise that diffuse ownership among media outlets promotes the presentation of a larger number of viewpoints in broadcast content than would be available in the case of a more concentrated ownership structure."
So, looking at the content media companies put out there to discern if their viewpoints are "diverse" enough has always been at the heart of what the agency does. The multi-market study is no different.
The eight so-called "critical information needs" the study will be investigating are news reporting on local emergencies, crime, safety, and security plus "health and welfare; education – including information about schools; transportation – including available options, schedules and costs; economic opportunities, including job openings, job training and information and small business assistance; environment, including air and water quality, and access to parks and other recreation; civic information, including what civic institutions and opportunities to associate with other people are available; political information, including information about candidates at all levels, information about public policy initiatives affecting your community and neighborhood."
Why is this so important to the agency? The proposal tells us: "The core goal of the media market census is to determine whether and how FCC-regulated and related media construct news and public affairs to provide for [critical information needs] across different communities. This includes a thorough study of local media ecologies, with special emphasis on performance and access/barriers to critical information needs."
To that end, they will ask the following questions: "What media is actually included in the media ecology being studied? What specific type of content dominates the media ecologies? How is the ownership of that market characterized? What is the flow of information within the ecology?"
Why are they concerned about ownership? The study proposal mentions ownership and station owners as a key variable more than a dozen times.
The implicit hypothesis is that ownership drives content, which, of course, makes sense. If you own a newspaper, you probably would want it to reflect your editorial viewpoint.
Therefore, it appears that the Commission is attempting to determine how best to regulate ownership to achieve specific content outcomes, and dare I say, political outcomes. For more on the political implications of news coverage, see: News That Matters by Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder (1989) that found network news coverage unquestionably shapes political attitudes.
Yet despite the content-based nature of how the agency looks at media ownership, upon congressional inquiries into the multi-market study the Commission felt compelled to issue a statement saying it "has no intention of interfering in the coverage and editorial choices that journalists make. We're closely reviewing the proposed research design to determine if an alternative approach is merited."
But based on the legal and regulatory mission, why would the agency suddenly do that? They're supposed to be monitoring content, aren't they? That's what the regulation says.
Has the FCC suddenly realized that meddling with media ownership affects editorial outcomes and that this might be undesirable? Or an unconstitutional intrusion into the freedom of the speech and of the press? 80 years into its undertaking, this is a startling admission coming from the agency.
However, there is nothing to suggest the FCC is backing off the new study or its goal to regulate media ownership to shape the viewpoints the American people are allowed to hear.
All the agency said was there is some sort of review taking place. Nothing about a delay or anything else. The study is moving forward. If they do pull it, it will just be replaced by an "alternative approach" to achieve the same end.
The problem is the content-based mission is completely wrong. This is not simply about policing limited FM, AM, and VHF signals, and allocating stations to particular frequencies on the spectrum. This goes way beyond that.
So, perhaps the Comcast-Time Warner merger will be approved, but with a condition that the new company be "net neutral." And new guidelines dictating how many radio stations or to what degree cross-ownership of print publications may occur will be published.
But all of that avoids the central question: What the heck do we need a Federal Communications Commission to monitor content for?
Robert Romano is the senior editor of Americans for Limited Government.