Jonathan Adelstein on the FCC and the public interest

by Ryan Blethen, Seattle Times

Jonathan Adelstein has consistently fought for the democratic ideal of an independent press since being appointed to the Federal Communications Commission in 2002. Adelstein, along with Michael Copps — the other Democrat on the five-member FCC — has taken what could have been a lonely post in the minority of a too-often-overlooked commission and elevated the FCC's work into the public sphere.

The commissioner answered questions for me recently about the FCC, the press and democracy.

Q: How do you feel FCC actions have affected our political system, which requires a free press?

A: The original compact struck with the American people was that in exchange for the right to profit from the use of the public airwaves ... [broadcasters] needed to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, that part of the compact was subsequently dashed, particularly in the 1980s, and after that the FCC dismantled a lot of the public-interest obligations. So what you have now is companies free to make as much money as they possibly can, ... but there is no quid pro quo for the public. There is no requirement that they give edifying material or inform the public about issues of concern in a democracy.

It is natural. It is not greed that drives the bottom-line-seeking behavior by these giant corporations. It is their legal requirement, it is a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits. That is the way our system works. But, the way it was supposed to be designed in terms of broadcasting, there would be a government on the other side ensuring the public got its end of the bargain by having real and meaningful and enforced public-service obligations. So we have kind of broken the compact.

We still do have the greatest, most entertaining media in the world, but we don't have the level of news and information that some of the other countries that chose the inflated but government-run model. That is the great irony, and it is sort of a tragic result of the FCC neglecting its requirement that it serve the public interest.

Q: What do you see as the short-term and long-term outcomes of this market-driven, publicly traded — and now we are getting financial investor-owned — press and media?

A: The effect on the broader public good is very profound. It goes beyond just what the bottom line is for the companies, it goes to the very heart of what our democracy is all about ... Those who choose the profitable thing will be awarded time and again. Those who choose the responsible thing sometimes may actually be punished for it by the system itself ... So if the government doesn't step in and say that we need to balance the strictly commercial interest of these media companies with the broader public interests, then the market itself is not going to do it. That is what the FCC traditionally did until the last couple of decades as we dismantled those rules.

Q: Would you go as far as to say that we need legislation that would restrict ownership or legislation that would at least stop or reverse the consolidation trend?

A: We already have the authority, I think, to strictly limit media consolidation. Problem is, we have been under a relentless barrage of pressure from some of the largest media companies in America ... certainly companies that politicians here in Washington pay a lot of attention to, demanding that we relax the rules and give them the ability to buy more and more outlets ... Additional legislation would always be helpful, but right now part of the big challenge is to make sure we don't make the situation get any worse.

Q: If there is going to be a recovery or a revitalization of quality journalism, how is that going to happen?

A: I think it is time for a national conference on the future of journalism ... There needs to be a new business model. How do we make the Internet work? What are the business models that allow [the press] to come up with the resources that they need to do real news. That is the challenge I think for the future of our press and democracy. And it is something that I think we should focus the best minds in the country on.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey