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Confessional letters from former FCC commissioners are fairly rare at the best of times, but it’s even more unusual to get one from a former regulator who blames himself for some of the damage that has been done to the media industry in the United States via mega-mergers. That’s pretty much what former commissioner Michael J. Copps does in an open letter he wrote that was published at the Columbia Journalism Review site on Thursday.
Copps, who was sworn in as a Federal Communications Commission board member in 2001, says in the letter that he had a “front-row seat watching government policy undermine your profession and our democracy” for more than a decade. Based on some of the FCC’s decisions, Copps says that he “saw first-hand how my agency’s decisions limited your ability to accomplish good things.” He goes on to say that thanks to the FCC’s desire to approve almost any merger deal:
“Gone are hundreds of once-independent broadcast outlets. In their stead is a truncated list of nationwide, homogenized, and de-journalized empires that respond more to quarterly reports than to the information needs of citizens.”
Not surprisingly, the recently-announced $45B merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable helped spark Copps’ thoughts in this regard, since it will result in a media behemoth that not only controls a huge chunk of the U.S. market for cable but will also have unprecedented control over the kinds of content that subscribers can access via its internet pipes.
Deals cut the muscle out of newsrooms
Copps says the sales pitch of media giants who bought and merged properties was often that there would be “synergies” and “economies of scale” that would make the resulting company more efficient. But what that translated into, he said, were massive layoffs in the media:
“Everywhere I looked, I saw newsrooms like yours being shuttered or drastically downsized, reporters getting the axe, and investigative journalism hanging by the most slender of threads. Instead of expanding news, the conglomerates cut the muscle out of deep-dive reporting and disinvested in you.”
It wasn’t just broadcast, the former FCC commissioner says — the FCC made things worse for newspaper journalism as well, by making it easier for large media companies to own both broadcast outlets and newspaper chains. “It was disheartening to realize how government — my own agency — was an accomplice in diminishing our news and disfiguring your journalism,” he says.
Copps also says he doesn’t buy the argument that the internet or new-media startups can take on much of the work that traditional newsrooms used to do, because “only a few have managed to find an online model to support the resource-intensive journalism that has been so drastically diminished in traditional media.” Perhaps in the future they might, but not now, he says.
The former commissioner argues that one of the things his former agency needs to do is to ensure a free and open internet by enshrining “net neutrality” principles in law, after they were struck down by a recent court decision. And he says the United States — and the media in particular — need to spark a national debate on the future of the internet, so that the people can make their voices heard.