An open letter to the FCC about a media policy for the digital age

Editor’s Note: On June 9, 2011, the FCC’s Future of Media Project released a report on the state of local accountability journalism and the governmental policies that foster or inhibit that journalism. In the November/December 2010 issue of CJR, Steve Coll penned this open letter to the report’s lead author, Steven Waldman.

Steven Waldman

Future of Media Project

Federal Communications Commission

445 12th Street, SW

Washington, DC 20554

Dear Steve,

Welcome back to Washington, belatedly. It was a year ago that the Federal Communications Commission announced your appointment as senior adviser and leader of the Future of Media Project, an inspired choice in light of your distinctive and distinguished background as a print journalist and web entrepreneur. It is a privilege to take on any assignment to advance the public interest, but we permanent residents of the capital apologize for your working conditions. For some reason the people who organize federal office buildings prefer to crowd policymakers like you into cramped warrens without ambient light. I hope the setting has at least concentrated your mind.

To some extent, as often happens in policymaking, the Future of Media Project’s mandate requires you to review questions to which the answers are known. Your purpose, as you have written, is to “assess whether all Americans have access to vibrant, diverse sources of news and information that will enable them to enrich their lives, their communities, and our democracy.” Only two in five Americans can name the three branches of their constitutional government, so it would be surprising if you brought forward a simple “yes” in reply to that question. In fact, we are expecting that some time around the end of the year you’ll issue a report that will lay out, in a detailed and hardheaded way, the options for public policy reform that might strengthen the media’s contributions to American democracy and civic health.

That is the critical question for the FCC and other Washington agencies—whether there are specific decisions Congress or regulators can take to bolster journalism’s centuries-old role in our constitutional system as a watchdog, educator, and convener of the public square. The answer seems clear: we badly require new policies and new thinking in Washington because the media policy regime we have inherited is out of date and inadequate for the times in which we live.

I recognize that this is not a mainstream view among journalists. We have been passing through a period of upheaval in our profession. We have seen the collapse of traditional newspaper business models, the hemorrhaging of thousands of well-paying newsroom jobs, and the rise of disruptive—and highly promising—new digital technologies and social media. Still, many journalists seem to abhor the idea that government should enact any new laws or reallocate any federal funding in response to these changes.

Admirably, journalists carry powerful antibodies to any hint that government might encroach on press freedom. Unfortunately, as a result, our profession often seems unable to explore public policy questions affecting the media in a serious way. For example, when the staff of the Federal Trade Commission, a few blocks north and west of your office, circulated a draft report earlier this year that listed possible new policy ideas to strengthen journalism—some of them, admittedly, very bad ideas—the reaction from the press was not constructive. On Reliable Sources, media reporter Howard Kurtz said that he understood that “the government has always provided indirect subsidies like postal subsidies, and there’s funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.” Yet, he continued, “I personally think it’s a horrible idea for the government to give any kind of funding, because it carries the aura of politicization.” Such purism—which if adopted probably would kill off Big Bird, Frontline, and PBS NewsHour, and seriously damage All Things Considered and Morning Edition—seems on its face extreme. It accurately reflects, however, the from-the-gut tenor of anti-government thinking among journalists that has, I’m afraid, helped to confuse many of the issues you are reviewing for the FCC.

The question you confront is not whether the government should allocate public funds to shape media and journalism. It already does. We have inherited a policy regime that is breathtaking in its scope and impact, and that goes well beyond mail subsidies and CPB funds, important though those have been. It exists in part because journalism is a form of commerce that must be taxed and regulated like all other commerce. Also, a great deal of journalism is influenced by government regulation because it is delivered across public or quasi-public property: the airwaves, government-granted cable monopolies, satellite bands, and the like. It would be no wiser to abandon altogether the policies that set rules and allocate funds across this system than it would be to stop regulating oil leases in ocean waters or maintaining public parks.

The problem is that the media policies that govern us in 2010—a patchwork stitched from the ideas of Calvin Coolidge’s Republican Party, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and Ronald Reagan’s deregulatory wave—have been overtaken by technological change.

From the country’s founding, American media and journalism have been continually remade by technological innovation. Political pamphlets made room for industrially printed newspapers, which made room for the telegraph, which made room for radio, which made room for broadcast television, which made room for cable and satellite services, which made room for the World Wide Web, which is making room even as we read this for the Kindle, iPad, and mobile phone applications.

When such technological, industrial, and economic changes dislodge the assumptions underlying public policy, the smart response is to update and adjust policy in order to protect the public interest. And politically plausible reforms that would clearly serve the public are within reach. It is time to reboot the system.

In fairness to the skeptics, the media policy debate that has occurred in Washington since the World Wide Web arrived has been polluted by parochialism. As the Great Recession descended in 2008, for example, newspaper publishers sidled up to Congress to seek further antitrust exemptions. That economically harmless, if morally unattractive, proposal made it seem that publishers and their friends on the Hill believed the future of journalism was inseparable from the future of newspapers. That is obviously untrue.

There followed a series of proposals focused primarily, it often seemed, on the replacement of laid-off reporters’ incomes—a proposal, for example, to issue citizen vouchers to pay for arts or journalism; another to establish a journalism division within Americorps; and my own thinking aloud at a Senate hearing about incorporating journalism within the writ of the National Endowment for the Humanities. All of these ideas suffered from a whiff of desperation; they were also implausible politically.

The Knight Foundation, the Open Society Institute, Herbert and Marion Sandler, and other philanthropists have lately funded a more convincing series of nonprofit journalism experiments, and some of them—ProPublica, for example—have already produced exemplary work. None of these nonprofit experiments can yet claim to be self-sustaining, however.

In such an environment it is easy to sympathize with the media analyst Jeff Jarvis, who argues, “The only way that journalism is going to be sustainable is if it is profitable.” The great majority of American journalism has always been and always will be conducted within for-profit enterprises. At present, much of the print and digital news media are finding healthy profits to be elusive, but we should hope and assume that journalism will eventually benefit again from the independence, innovation, and continual regeneration that often arise with the profit motive.

Even in emphasizing this point, however, we do not absolve ourselves of the need to reform our aging media policy regime. Ideologically diverse politicians constructed that regime during the twentieth century precisely to manage the public interest within a market-dominated system. If those old policies are reformed and modernized—as I hope you and your FCC colleagues will recommend—the philosophical premise that market forces should predominantly shape American journalism need not and should not change.

Fortunately, in your windowless chamber at the Commission, Steve, you are in the right federal agency to recast the media policy debate in this way. The FCC oversees a large section of the historical media policy regime and can make constructive recommendations about the rest of that regime. You have an opportunity to look carefully, with a wonk’s Coke-bottle glasses, at the laws and regulations we already have, to see how they are working and how they might be improved, given the changes technology has lately wrought.

Our inherited policy regime is constructed on a foundation of more than a dozen major pieces of federal legislation, as well as in the regulatory rules and state and local laws. One of the most important underlying statutes, as you know, is the Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC in the first place. The act is a successor to the Radio Act of 1927, which was passed by a Republican-led Congress at the end of the Coolidge boom years.

We needed these laws at the time to manage chaos and to define the public’s interest as new technologies remade journalism. Unregulated radio broadcasting had produced a cacophony of crossed signals on the public airwaves. To impose order, Congress adopted a geographical scheme. To undergird it, the bill’s authors borrowed from public utility regulators the principled language that would guide specific policy decisions about broadcast media for decades, up to this day: that broadcasting should be managed by the government in the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.”

How, exactly, to interpret and meet this standard has been much debated since then. The practical issues flowing from Congress’s public interest aspirations changed continually as media technologies changed, and as powerful commercial interests lobbied for favors. The result is a system in which federal, state, and local regulators pervasively set the economic conditions in which for-profit and nonprofit journalism is produced, while, at the same time, they require certain noncommercial activities from licensees, meant to promote and protect the public interest.

The FCC oversees, primarily in broadcasting, the ways in which the public is compensated—in cash or by mandated public interest endeavors—for the use of scarce spectrum on the airwaves. At the heart of this regime, the commission oversees formal “public interest obligations” undertaken by broadcasters in exchange for their licenses to operate. I want to return to those obligations shortly, because I think they offer a large opportunity for reform.

Your colleagues oversee a large number of other media policies designed to defend the public interest: political speech regulations, children’s television regulations, emergency broadcasting rules, the “equal time” rule governing the access of politicians to airwaves during election campaigns, and other rules designed to protect the public.

Separately, through implementation of the “must carry” rules passed by Congress (also justified in the name of the public interest), local cable regulators across the country have, in effect, constructed the economics of local television news. They have done this by ensuring that local broadcast stations could expand their metropolitan audiences as the number of cable customers increased. “Must carry” laws meant that, as cable systems grew rapidly after the 1970s, cable monopolists operating under government charter had no choice but to carry—for free—local stations that they might not otherwise have supported. Thus the pervasive “Action News” culture of local broadcast stations made indelible by Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show is not the adaptive survivor of pure Darwinian free-market forces. Federal law nurtured it. C-SPAN, too, is a direct product of cable regulatory mandates.

In the print world, postal subsidies are one example of how federal law has molded the economics of journalism. Just as mandating the “public interest, convenience, or necessity” was an intentional statement of principle by Congress, so was the enactment of postal subsidies for the press in the eighteenth century. George Washington and James Madison recommended the subsidies to strengthen the press’s role in the newborn republic, as Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal of the University of Southern California describe in their paper, “Public Policy and Funding the News.” In today’s dollars, mail subsidies provided $2 billion annually to magazines and newspapers at their peak in 1970. They have declined as the postal service has struggled with deficits, but they remain important to the economics of magazines.

Laws passed by state and local governments requiring the publication of legal notices in newspapers have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in additional annual subsidies to journalism. The adamantly free-market Wall Street Journal has a contract with the federal government to print seized-property notices; measured by column inches, the government was the Journal’s top advertiser in a four-week study conducted by Cowan and Westphal. Should we be bemused, given the ardently anti-government philosophy of the Journal’s editorial page? Not unduly; the First Amendment protects hypocritical speech, too.

The question we should focus on is whether, in this time of economic shocks and technological change, the intent of Congress to address the public interest through all these existing policies is being adequately met.

One obvious place for you to begin is with those formal “public interest obligations” undertaken by broadcasters in exchange for their operating licenses. In theory, radio and television stations must demonstrate a commitment to public issues as a condition for FCC license renewal. The stations report in quarterly filings about their performance. In reality, that tradeoff has devolved into something of a farce.

One might think that since your office is at the FCC, Steve, you could go downstairs to some whirring electronic archive and peruse the “P.I.O.” filings, as they are known (P.I.O. stands for “public-interest obligations”) to see how your licensees are doing. As you probably know, however, the P.I.O. rules have been so watered down by special interest lobbyists that stations do not have to actually file their public interest reports with anyone but themselves, as long as they are available to the public during office hours.

A group of researchers led by my colleague Tom Glaisyer recently collected and reviewed filings in several cities, to sample the health of the public interest regime. Here in Washington, they wandered over to WUSA 9, a CBS affiliate with a not-bad record of local news broadcasting. In a recent quarterly report, WUSA’s staff dutifully listed its contributions to the public interest. On the public issue of “Child Abuse,” for example, on April 27, 2010, the station broadcast, for two minutes, the following story:

Authorities say Janay Morgan Majors shot and killed her husband…. It happened inside the couple’s home on Lanes Corner Road in Spotsylvania County…. ‘She did call and said, ‘I shot my husband,’ Lieutenant James Bibens told 9 News Now….

After that Public Interest Report comes another on the issue of “Domestic Abuse.” The date of that story is listed as June 18, 2010. The story begins: “Authorities say Janay Morgan Majors shot and killed her husband….” The text is identical to that illuminating Child Abuse.

Pity the poor junior staff members who must waste time and paper on this charade at WUSA and hundreds of other stations. Nor are the WUSA public interest filings exceptionally bad; they are typical. The very existence of such a Dickensian system of busywork and evasion is a symptom of how broken the public interest component of our inherited federal media policy regime has become. I hope your report will seize the opportunity to delve into this travesty.

And there should be specific opportunities for reform at the FCC in this area. I’m thinking of a prospective deal, for example, in which broadcasters could be relieved of these costly sham filings in exchange for spectrum user fees that would add funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which is purpose-built to serve the public interest in ways that licensed commercial broadcasters obviously are not. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates that stations spend $7 billion annually by donating airtime to support their public interest obligations, a figure that does not include the cost of paperwork filings; even 10 percent of that amount, redirected to the CPB, could remake public media in the United States.

No doubt you and your FCC colleagues can think through the details of such a reform better than I can on the outside, but there is a larger point here. To reconstruct our inherited media policy regime so that it is more responsive to the times in which we live, it will be necessary to re-think the public interest obligation. We don’t need a better system of paperwork and filings; we need a new bargain that spurs the funding of innovation and journalism in the public interest, the kind that commercial journalism may no longer be able to fully support.

What we’ve learned from the sham filings we have now, it seems to me, is that trying to force profit-seeking licensees to tack public interest work onto their commercial enterprises is for the most part a fool’s errand. It would be far more rational to let commercial enterprises respond to market incentives as they see fit, while leaving the construction of public interest journalism to organizations and leaders who want to do nothing else.

The public interest obligation system has been deteriorating for years, while only a handful of policy wonks paid attention. The context in which this embarrassment has been perpetuated has changed, however. That, too, should galvanize the FCC’s attention.

Professional journalism is being gutted in the United States. Newspaper revenues from advertising have fallen by almost half since 2000, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s staff report. Newspaper owners have responded to the decline in revenue by reducing costs, primarily by firing staff, shrinking the amount of column inches devoted to news, and shuttering bureaus and beats. Broadcast network news organizations, too, are implementing buyouts, layoffs, and bureau closings. Newspapers and broadcasters brought some of this pain on themselves, by failing to innovate and ignoring their customers. But to suggest that the evisceration of professional newsrooms today is a consequence of a failure of business leadership, rather than technological change, is like saying that Americans would be riding more horses today if only early twentieth century stable owners had been more foresighted.

The online divisions of newspapers and broadcasters are experimenting vigorously with new paywall and advertising models that they hope will replace a significant amount of the lost revenues from the old business models. Let’s hope they succeed. However, as the FTC staff noted:

There are reasons for concern that experimentation may not produce a robust and sustainable business model for commercial journalism. History in the United States shows that readers of the news have never paid anywhere close to the full cost of providing the news. Rather, journalism has always been subsidized to a large extent by, for example, the federal government, political parties, or advertising.

It would be possible to argue, as our friends at the Cato Institute and other free-market or libertarian organizations surely would, that the old postal subsidies were an error, even though George Washington supported them; that all other forms of direct and indirect government subsidy to journalism were misguided when enacted; and that the best possible policy going forward would be to eliminate all forms of targeted support for journalism in every corner of the federal policy regime. But such arguments are radical and wrong.

Commercial licensees are making profits from scarce public resources, the airwaves; they must compensate the public for their access, just as resource companies do when they mine ore or cut trees in public parks. Moreover, as the Founders envisioned, freedom of the press and a healthy public square are vital to the republic—so vital that their pursuit is worthy of modest, content-neutral public investments in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly free-market system.

As has been pointed out many times in this magazine, professional reporting that bears witness to complex events and seeks to hold government and corporate power to account is expensive to produce. To do it well requires more training than is typically needed to hold a real estate license but less than is needed to perform brain surgery. To do it well over time, under periodic pressure from powerful opponents, requires resources, experience, and the contextual influence of professional norms and peer review.

As with medicine, law, and accounting, the evolution of journalism into a profession during the late twentieth century provided no guarantees against fraud or systemic failure, but it did bring with it an overall improvement in civic information and discourse, in comparison to the pre-professional days of tabloid murder sheets, extortionists with flash cameras, and heavily politicized muckrakers.

Still, to emphasize the enduring value of professional journalism does not require that we discount the value of amateurs. There are many who place their journalistic faith in new methodologies accessible by amateurs and enabled by digital technology—“crowdsourcing” to crack complex puzzles or muster public outcry, for example, or data-mining projects conceived by computer programmers, or the spread of citizen-reporters who bear witness to important events around the world with cell phones, without formal training beyond that required to post their clips to YouTube.

When it comes to media policy reform, it is fair for the amateurism optimists (as I think of them) to worry about an inherent bias toward large, professional organizations. This bias has been present, to cite one example, in the regulation of cable franchises at the county and city levels of government backed by federal law. That regime of rules was supposed to seed innovation on subsidized public, educational, and government channels. In many jurisdictions, it hasn’t. New policy ideas should be interrogated for biases against small innovators and cleansed of them where possible.

We do have reliable evidence that the public continues to value mainstream professional journalism, however, even when so many new choices are available in digital spaces. For example, the total audience for the best newspaper journalism has grown markedly since 2000, if online readers are taken into account. The audiences for existing public media outlets in the U.S. are also healthy and growing. The country’s 365 public television stations have 61 million viewers each week, according to research by Barbara Cochran, the Curtis B. Hurley Chair of Public Affairs Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. Public radio has 30 million listeners. During the last two decades, the total audience for NPR member stations has grown 176 percent, including a 9 percent expansion during the last five years. Altogether, the public broadcasting system reaches 98 percent of the American population. Opinion surveys also show that the public media outlets enjoy considerably higher trust than do their commercial counterparts.

Our public media system has achieved this extraordinary result despite being starved for public funds, in comparison to other industrialized countries. The U. S. spends about $1.43 per capita, or $420 million a year, on public media. Great Britain spends about $87 per capita. Canada, one of the most miserly among industrialized countries, spends about $27 per capita. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget has increased less than 5 percent in real terms since 1982.

The U.S. has always taken less government-driven approaches to media policy than other rich countries, and in these fiscally challenged times it is unrealistic to consider increases in funding from the general tax base. But it should be possible to pursue reforms and add funding to public media without making any significant call on general revenues.

The FCC regularly auctions and allocates valuable broadcast spectrum. There should be opportunities to raise considerable funds from spectrum purchasers and users, and to redirect to more productive use the funds they already expend under regulatory mandates such as the P.I.O. system. This search for revenue should also expand beyond FCC licensees to include cable franchisees and satellite broadcasters, among others. Satellite broadcasters, for example, are required to set aside expensive bandwidth for public interest uses, but the impact of these investments is negligible; the equivalent revenue would serve the public better if it were directed to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

What can we achieve with this revenue? For a number of reasons, including political practicality, we should construct reform within the system we already have, rather than invent a new one. That means we should direct all or nearly all of the increased funds we get from public property users and other special interests to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in return for systemic reforms within the CPB-funded system.

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the CPB. The system was founded to promote the public interest amid pervasive commercial media—precisely the mission we need to revive now. The Corporation has contributed to the success of PBS and NPR. Some of its recent experiments, such as Argo, which is intended to fund multimedia local reporting in response to the loss of newspaper jobs, may be promising.

CPB has a record of accountability to Congress and to the public about questions of political bias. Congress has already implemented special funding and governance rules to protect the corporation from politicization—rules that have been reviewed, revised, and argued about for years, but which nonetheless require strengthening. Funding should be removed from the appropriations process to an even greater degree, perhaps by setting up semi-automated flows into an independent trust fund. Governance and appointments to the cpb board must be further depoliticized.

The current CPB is also biased toward mainstream television and radio, particularly television, which receives, by law, three-quarters of its funds. I’ve heard suggestions that new funding should be linked to more pluralistic formulas, including a restructuring of CPB to encompass new digital entrants, such as ProPublica, for example, or local sites like the nonprofit Voice of San Diego—a change that might be signaled by renaming the entity as the Corporation for Public Media. That may be ambitious politically, but it is certainly the right strategic direction. Any new funding regime should be measured by whether or not it will produce more serious, independent, diverse, public-minded reporting.

Any new funds routed through a reformed corporation should come with conditions. One should be that that PBS, NPR, and their member stations have incentives to work across digital media, and to embrace local reporting to a much greater degree than they do now (which is not much, overall; only 478 of the 901 stations airing NPR programming have staff of any kind, and only a fraction of those have a local news staff). The stations should also be given incentives to connect their audiences to other non-profit and commercial media outlets through open systems, just as web aggregators do, in order to strengthen innovators and new entrants.

As Bill Kling, the retiring president of American Public Media, has forcefully pointed out, the current CPB-funded radio and television station system is also hobbled by internal problems. Stations are often badly governed. Colleges and universities control many public stations, and their administrations sometimes milk them for cash while neglecting original news and public affairs. Any new funding routed to this system should be linked to a reforms and incentives that will address public media’s governance failures.

The system should also be organized to reinforce the existing firewall between government funding and journalism. Such firewalls are a daunting challenge, but they can be managed. Newspaper publishers, in their day, insulated their newsrooms from pressure from advertisers, for the most part; university presidents insulate their faculty from pressure from donors, for the most part. When they fail they are often exposed (typically by journalists) and held accountable. Conflicts of interest and the appearance of conflicts are inherent to professional activity in a free-market economy; law, medicine, accounting, and science all struggle with the problem. There is, in any event, no inherent moral difference between corporate advertising dollars and government dollars; both flow from institutions whose power over citizens journalists should be seeking to describe and challenge.

I’ve even heard that you, Steve, have thought aloud with colleagues about a rule requiring that no recipient of expanded government funding for public media could receive such funds if the revenue would amount to more than 15 percent of the recipient’s total budget. That is a terrific idea, assuming some scheme for grandfathering CPB-funded stations can be put together. In their heyday, newspaper publishers and television networks retained independence in part because revenue sources were diverse and no one category created existential risk.

Funds reallocated to CPB should also be tied to reforms designed to open up the public media system to make it more diverse and more inclusive. Open platforms, open technology, and open access should be guiding aspirations, too. If new funds are passed through CPB, Congress should insist on the creation of at least one new funding stream accessible by outsiders to the legacy PBS and public radio system. The Waldman Fifteen Percent Rule, as we will henceforth think of it, could be particularly helpful in that project.

PBS is a better-than-average but flawed government institution with some outstanding flagship properties, including Frontline and PBS NewsHour in the journalism space. There are opportunities to use CPB reforms to improve it, although we shouldn’t raise our expectations too high. Public radio, on the other hand, which is independently chartered and not beholden to Congress or any other government body, has proven itself as the indispensable center of professional journalism and public affairs programming in the era of shrinking newspapers. Some specific effort should therefore be undertaken to bolster NPR and its member stations, as well as NPR’s quasi-rival, American Public Media.

NPR receives less than 2 percent of its annual budget from the CPB or other federal grantmakers. Even when indirect program fees flowing to NPR from member stations are considered, less than 10 percent of CPB’s funds flow through to the country’s dominant public radio network. The need to raise funds from diverse sources, including listeners, strengthens the NPR system’s journalism and other content by forcing it to account for audience preferences and to avoid bias. Even so, more funding routed through CPB to the public radio system would strengthen the country’s democracy, particularly if the new funds were tied to incentives to expand the radio system’s web publishing and local reporting.

The producers and anchors on public radio should aspire to be the conveners of a reliable, fact-based, calm, inclusive, media space for nonpartisan reporting and debate about the issues that matter, without sensation or the distorting pursuit of commercial reward. Still, like all centrist, successful cultural institutions, public radio will have to challenge its own complacency and raise the level of its diversity. Saturday Night Live, we can hope, will continue to help to keep its producers honest. The Alec Baldwin “Schweddy Balls” send-ups of NPR are funny and dead-on. I’ve been impressed by Vivian Schiller’s leadership of NPR, but I thought the decision to fire commentator Juan Williams over the comments he made on Fox News was mistaken. Fox thrives on demagogic identity politics, meanwhile, so it is hardly surprising that it has seized on the firing to stir up Republican resistance to public media.

There is no doubt that conservatives see NPR as hobbled by liberal bias. The network should be accountable to all of its legitimate constituents—to function as a public square, it must be open and fair to all comers. The BBC provides an instructive example: listening to conservative criticism, its managers concluded that their problem was not bias in the way they reported, but an unconscious bias in the subjects they chose. Issues of concern to conservatives, such as immigration and business, were disproportionately neglected. A course correction broadened the BBC’s base of support.

As journalists, Steve, our profession’s credibility with the public is, shall we say, limited. Fortunately, the case for a stronger public media need not depend on the opinions of journalists. In addition to civic information, civil debate, and investigations into governmental and corporate performance, a strong public media is becoming essential because technology is rapidly transforming the basic role of media within society and households.

Through television, Sesame Street educated a generation of American preschoolers. Through the web and mobile devices, Americans of the future will not just educate their toddlers, they will likely retrain themselves for the workplace; manage their health online; and join scores of virtual communities.

As Bill Kling and others have argued, in the coming world of infinite channels, breathtaking challenges to privacy, and politics that threaten to be as fractured as the media, the country requires a reliable, public-minded virtual square to sort fact from fiction and honest debate from cynically funded manipulation.

That is not a matter of left versus right, or of competition between political parties; it concerns the health of civil society. A campaign to reform and revitalize public media waged to advance such a vision will have many constituents: rural states left out of the urban media cacophony; independent voters and engaged citizens searching for reason and cross-checked facts, as well as in-depth reporting that will hold power to account; diverse community and ethnic groups seeking more inclusive sources of information; educators and public health institutions seeking reliable channels of public-minded reporting about subjects too often neglected; and politicians of all ideological stripes whose careers are unreasonably endangered by undisciplined, self-interested electronic publishers.

That is perhaps much more ambition and abstraction than a civil servant laboring in a cramped Washington cubicle should have to take on board, Steve, but you’ve always been one to think big. I’m confident that your report will be intelligent, thorough, balanced, and nuanced. I hope it will also provide the most comprehensive blueprint yet for principled but pragmatic reform of our broken media policy regime. “Maybe we’re at a 1967 moment, again,” Ernest Wilson, the chairman of CPB, likes to say. He is referring to the arrival of the political coalition that gave formal birth to public broadcasting.

He may be right, but only if we connect a unifying reform vision to the broadest possible supporting coalitions. Your work can get us started.

My best regards,

The Other Steve

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Steve Coll has been Dean of Columbia Journalism School since 2013. A former president of the New America Foundation, he is also a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he writes on politics, national security, and the media. He is the author of seven nonfiction books, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and a former reporter, foreign correspondent, and senior editor at The Washington Post. Tags: , , , ,