Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Where are the Watchdogs?

One of my professors returned an analysis paper I had written for a reading: Who is watching the watchdogs? a report done by the Center for Public Integrity awhile back about the Federal Communications Commission. This opaque agency through structural regulation (mostly deregulation) is responsible for the media landscape we enjoy (suffer?) today in the United States. 

He liked my points but commented that I while I have many insights into the problems of watchdogging the media, I offer few solutions. Fair enough. I did talk to him later and pointed out that I do have some ideas, but a 5 page analysis paper would have morphed into a 12 page start at a thesis. 

So here are my ideas on what possible solutions may be: 

We (the royal we, like the FCC, Congress, the American people) need to rewrite the framework for communications policymaking. The rest of the world doesn't get our slavish devotion to localism. I don't think it has to be an either/or proposition, localism vs. regionalism vs. internationalism. My dream in setting up was that users, on one website, could see how they were connected to each other, neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, country to country. The idea of glocalism is strong on the website, but users can also venture out into international waters. How about a news website that shows users the rest of the world is a click, or two, away? The BBC is already doing this quite effectively, much more so than the NYTimes. 

The Internet must be at the center of communications policymaking. I can't take credit for this idea - there's a very smart lady at the University of Michigan Law School who's written quite a bit about this, and I'm persuaded. I heard a classmate last week bring up her concern about audience fragmentation on the web - this is where the FCC, or Congress, could create comprehensive requirements for what must be included on a website. Similar to the rules (which are long since gone) that every radio station had to broadcast five minutes of news at the top of the hour, every Internet provider would have to have prominent news and information links on user's home page. I would even go so far as to require ISP's to pay into a news and information fund to pay for news outlets to generate original content - they do this in Holland with 10% of the revenues for public broadcasting program guides going to newspapers. You could also start by requiring every public library in the United States to have a news site as a front page on their computers. Which leads me to my next solution: 

Public Libraries: I'm sure I've written about this before. I don't know why they go overlooked, but it seems obvious to me spending a lot of time in various public libraries that they serve an important social function. I spent a couple hours with reference librarians trying to dig up sources for a paper I'm writing - these folks live to learn, and they live to help other people learn. It's their tradition, and they've changed many a life by doing so, Frank McCourt to name one, and one closer to my heart, my grandfather who happened to have some freak gene in his poor, Irish, fisherpeople DNA that sent him to the New London library to read and dream about something greater than himself. 

Public media: this is where the government can play a significant role. We got our 1st Amendment issues about the government getting involved with newspapers. OK. But we already have a public broadcasting system in place with established rituals of funding and firewalls in place to prevent the government from interfering (Congress forward funds public broadcasting by 2 years). A restructuring is in order: regionalizing the existing decentralized system; and expanding licenses for low power FM. Also, a public media trust fund so that member stations can innovate without fear of offending their aging major donors who want things just as they are. 

The master plan behind all of this is simple: the more people are involved in the media, the more they'll pay attention to how it affects them. To those folks who say 'I don't want to be involved in the media, I don't have time' - I say fine. That's why we need regulations in place to make sure people are exposed to relevant information as much as possible. 

Where are the watchdogs in all this? We are! 

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