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Media's Role in the Public Perception of National Security

An Interview with Jordan Goldstein

Jordan Goldstein is Commissioner Michael J. Copps' of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), Senior Legal Advisor. In addition to his duties as senior advisor, Mr. Goldstein advises the Commissioner on all media issues. Mr. Goldstein previously served as Competition and Universal Service Legal Advisor. Mr. Goldstein serves as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University. He received a BA, with Distinction, in Economics and Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, an MA in International Relations from The Johns Hopkins University, and a JD from Stanford Law School, where he served on the Stanford Law Review.

How does the government try to regulate the media? Are the regulations efficient? Are there checks and balances between the government and the media?

From the FCC's position, we try to focus on limiting how many outlets one media owner can have. We try to promote the goals of localism, diversity, and competition. Localism means broadcast outlets that serve the local community in which those outlets are assigned. Diversity covers everything from viewpoint diversity, editorial diversity, minority diversity and programming diversity. The goal of diversity is to get a large number of speakers or outlets in the market and variety from where information originates. The last goal, of course, is competition. In the past, we had a whole range of limits on media ownership. In June we loosened most of those limits. We used to not only have horizontal limits on media ownership, but vertical limits as well. In a sense, we did not want those who control the distribution channels to also control all of the content that was being broadcast. We used to have financial syndication rules that ensured independently produced programming. Finally, we are required to make sure that any licensee from the FCC is serving the public interest. We used to require a whole range of information from broadcasters, including everything from children's programming to going to their community and ascertaining what the needs are of that particular community. We have eliminated almost every one of those requirements and today license renewals are a very simple application. A licensee can send in a request and if there are no major complaints against them, their license is simply renewed.

Are you satisfied with the role of the FCC? What makes the FCC effective and/or how can it be improved?

Commissioner Copps is not satisfied. His fear is that we are moving towards a situation where there is so much concentration in the media that we will not have the aforementioned diversity of viewpoints. We will have a few national corporations or large conglomerates controlling all of our media outlets and limiting citizens' access to news and information. The marketplace of ideas that we get with a broad range of viewpoints is important to a democracy and important to our country. We are heading into a situation where we do not have a local broadcaster anymore, instead we have a national entity that is controlling a large number of outlets. This entity is not involved in the local communities and is not providing a range of viewpoints. So, Commissioner Copps' fear is that we are not doing the job that we are supposed to be doing. We are not protecting localism, competition, and diversity.

In order to improve the FCC, Commissioner Copps will look at a number of issues. First of all, he would not have eliminated our protections against excessive media concentration. He would also be a little more hands-on in making sure that broadcasters are serving the public interest and their local communities, especially in the event of mergers and license renewals. He would be more proactive in making sure that the public interest is served.

Recently, the FCC approved major deregulation of the media. Please tell us how you might have changed the new policies or why you think they are appropriate.

I think you need to put this all in perspective of where we have been and how far we have gone. We have eliminated a lot of the requirements that broadcasters ascertain to community needs æ that they demonstrate and publish public interest by covering a whole range of programming. We have eliminated all of the vertical protections of community interest and now we are starting to eliminate the horizontal protections. What we may end up with is a few national conglomerates controlling the entertainment we get, the information we receive, and truly controlling all of our media outlets. This is something that worries Commissioner Copps and he thinks this is the wrong approach to take. We should, in a sense, protect our protections.

What is your opinion regarding Congress's response to the ruling?

The thing that is interesting about this is that only 17 days after the FCC's decision, before the decision is even released to anyone from the commission, the senate commerce committee stepped in and expressed their concern. Given that action by the senate, I think our view is that the FCC ought to allow congress to decide on this issue. A lot of people would rather have the House of Representatives decide and liberate on these issues than an un-elected body of several commissioners decide. The right course of action is for us to stay within our rules.

How do you believe the deregulation of the media impacts news reporting on national security?

When larger entities evolve in the media, there are several things that can happen. First of all, you can end up with just a few or a single viewpoint being expressed on a given issue. You can also end up with fewer resources being put into the news. For example, we have seen situations where two television stations or a television station and a newspaper merge and then cut down on newsroom staff. They effectively cut out the resources devoted to each of the individual parties. We have seen the foremost example of this in the radio industry. In the mid-90's, congress and the commission eliminated the limits on national radio ownership. There were still ownership limits in the local markets, but nationwide there were no limits. What we saw happen was stations grow bigger and bigger and today we have one station group (Clear Channel) with over a thousand individual stations. In radio, a number of stations have eliminated their local newsrooms. They have created regional or national news entities and there is no longer local news reporting on the radio. Now we are starting to see that trend happen in television, where the broadcasting of local news is being done out of the station's headquarters, in some cases hundreds of miles away. Elimination of local news is something that is a real concern and something that we ought to be worried about. This elimination will give the public a homogenized view of many pertinent issues to society, issues such as national security.

Do you believe the media accurately reports on issues of national security?

What is important to focus on, from the FCC's perspective, is that the more voices available to the public, the more likely we are to get a range of viewpoints. We are also more likely to get reporters digging into a number of the stories relevant to national security. One of the things that troubled Commissioner Copps during the ownership debate was that the commission did not go out as a commission and try to gather the evidence. They did not go out and look at how these decisions might impact minorities, children, and local broadcasting communities. The commission would not provide the money for travelling around the country to hear what different groups had to say on the issue. What Commissioner Copps did was take money from his own personal budget in order to travel around the country and attend over a dozen hearings and forums. What we heard in those hearings and forums was that people were concerned about media concentration. We had more than 2 million people contact the FCC in regards to this issue, more than any other in recent history. Ninety-nine percent of these people said do not allow for more concentration. At one of the forums, a former mayor of a major city came up to us and mentioned that we used to have more outlets in the city. The former mayor continued to say that when he was on the city council and they would hold a hearing, there would be plenty of reporters with microphones trying to listen in on the hearing. It was such that when you opened the door, two of the reporters would fall into the room. Nowadays, nobody cares. With the media consolidation, nobody bothers to cover the local news and proceedings. You simply do not have anybody getting those stories and covering those viewpoints. That is why if you do not agree with what one media outlet is saying, have more outlets to allow for another viewpoint to be expressed. This is not an issue on the left or the right, or of concern to Republicans or Democrats. The FCC is the only place where it has become that way. Everywhere else that we have heard about this issue, including on the floor of congress, this has been a bipartisan issue. Both republicans and democrats are concerned about media consolidation. We had groups across the board such as Common Cause, The National Organization for Women, The Conference of Catholic Bishops, The National Rifle Association, Parents' Television Counsel and Family Research Counsel, Consumer's Union, the list goes on and on. All of these groups were opposed to what the commission was trying to do. Our job at the FCC is not to weigh public opinion and base our decisions on a pole, but when 99.9% of the people who contact the agency oppose the deregulation it ought to tell us something about American concern for what is happening in the media. Again, you need to look at what has happened in radio and most people will tell you that they are concerned about the consolidation that has happened. This consolidation has diminished the opportunity for local musicians to play on the radio and the direction we are heading in would yield a similar result on television. At this point, under our rules, we have allowed for someone to own three television stations, eight radio stations, the cable provider, the major newspaper, and the dominant internet provider in a given market. This eliminates several voices, which is unnecessary and not only impacts national security but could harm our very democracy.

Do you believe that the media has the power to influence public opinion in regards to national security?

Absolutely. Part of what the media does is bring news and information to individuals. In fact, what we saw in our surveys was that most people get their news from either their newspapers or their television stations. Given that ability to bring stories and information to people, constitutes an influence of public opinion. One of the things that was really troubling to us was that for a long time the media was not covering the issue of their own concentration. It took until the very last minute before we started to see any stories at all on this matter. In fact when we lost this proceeding, last September, there was one story on one network at four in the morning covering the issue. Everyone says that the newsrooms and the corporate boardrooms are separate, but this is a great way to demonstrate that there definitely is some corporate influence on the major newsgroups. This issue was not covered well at all and very few stories were published before the final vote from the commission. One of the interesting things about the forums that Commissioner Copps attended was that the local television stations would be there covering the event while the major newspapers from the conglomerates would not show up at all. These forums were no small event either. We would have members of congress show up along with thousands of people to make a big event. And yet, the major conglomerates did not even bother to show up. You have to ask yourself why the local newspapers were there to cover these events and the conglomerates were not. This is something that has an impact on the news and information we get as citizens. When it is clear that the public relies on the media as a source of news and information, it is that much more important to have editorial diversity in the media. We do not regulate the diversity that they put into their outlets, that is, we do not say you must broadcast this specific story or that one. However, what we do is try to make sure that all major news stories are covered so that citizens can get a diverse source of information. Commissioner Copps' view is that we are eliminating that diverse source and we are getting to the point where one entity can control large parts of information that the public is receiving. That definitely does influence the public opinion on a variety of issues.

What general message would you like to send to the public regarding the media, national security, or any other issue of importance to the FCC?

I think the general message is that this issue matters to everyone in the country. Everyone in America ought to see themselves as a stakeholder in this issue. The public owns the airways. No company in this country, no entity owns a single airway, they are owned by the public. We decided a long time ago that the people who own these airways use them as a public resource. They can make profit off of it, they can even run it as a business. But, they still have an obligation to serve the public interest. They are using a public resource to serve their community. We need to make sure that they are doing so. This is something that's going to have an impact on the entertainment, information, and viewpoints individuals and families are able to obtain. Ultimately, it could have an effect on our country and its democracy. For that reason, hopefully, people who read this interview will get involved and let their voices be heard. We need to have a national dialogue on this matter and people's voices need to be acknowledged.

Submitted by: Matt Mosgin, 2003 Summer Intern