My Conversation with Steven Waldman, Senior Advisor, FCC

Posted on July 26, 2011 by Tony Uphoff

"Assistant to the Chairman of the FCC on the Future of Media" is without question one of the coolest titles I've ever seen. Even cooler that it's the title of my friend and former colleague Steve Waldman. Steve and I worked together on the influential internet site Beliefnet. After 10 years with Beliefnet he recently joined the FCC as Senior Advisor to the Chairman, leading the future of media project.

In the announcement on Steve's new role, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was quoted as saying:

A strong consensus has developed that we’re at a pivotal moment in the history of the media and communications, because of game-changing new technologies as well as the economic downturn... At such a moment, it is important to ensure that our policies promote a vibrant media landscape that furthers long-standing goals of serving the information needs of communities. The initiative is intended to identify the best ideas for achieving those goal, while recognizing that government must be scrupulous in abiding by the First Amendment and never dictating or controlling the content of the news or other communications protected by the First Amendment.
I read one of the first pieces Steve did on the FCC's "Future of Media" project and frankly I was blown away. I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in sharing his thoughts on the role of the FCC and the Future of Media project. Here's what he had to say:
As we researched our Federal Communications Commission report – “Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age” -- we became convinced that much is misunderstood about the historical role of government in the development of media and communications. Neither consistently libertarian nor socialistic, it has instead been a history of episodic interventions – sometimes visionary, sometimes parochial. Some of these have made sense and some haven’t – and when we offered analysis and recommendations for our report, we tried to learn from that history.

For instance, the federal government has done well when it has focused on the development of communications infrastructure. It managed the creation of broadcast, satellite and cable TV. Oh, and it financed the creation of the Internet and the development of satellites. Not bad. Government also does well when it establishes rules of fairness, to prevent abuse by certain market players and allow for continued innovation.

On the other hand, when it comes to the content of the media, the U.S. government is appropriately limited by the First Amendment.

We were presented with a dilemma. After year and a half of research, we found that the media landscape simultaneously has great bounty – tremendous innovation in nearly every crevice – and yet some serious deficits. We especially found a serious gap in local accountability reporting – the kind of journalism that helps prevent corruption in city hall, pollution in the local river or incompetence at the school board. This is a big problem – one which the digital revolution had not yet solved.

Yet we also were extremely conscious of government’s limitations. As a result, in our recommendations we focused on a few areas:

  • Universal broadband. Since his first day in office as Chairman of the FCC, Julius Genachowski has made the achievement of universal broadband and the preservation of an open Internet his top priorities. As part of this agenda, he has pushed to make more spectrum available for wireless broadband and to refuse the Universal Service Fund to help subsidize the spread of high-speed Internet capacity.
  • Though universal broadband was a crucial goal for Chairman Genachowski since day one, the Information Needs of Community report found another reason for these policies: they’re essential for helping media innovation to take root on the local level. This is a matter of both equity and economics. Communities suffer when newspapers contract. In some cases, new digital news operations have sprung up to fill the gaps but they are of no use to those who are not online. Those people have the worst of both worlds. It’s also a matter of economics. If 100 percent of Americans gain access to the Internet, that will constitute a 50 percent increase in the number of people online. That is bound to make it easier for local news entrepreneurs to create successful models.
  • Government should become far more aggressive and open in putting data online. This enables citizens to hold institutions accountable, creates opportunities for new information-based businesses and reduces the cost of journalism.
  • The federal government spent $1 billion in advertising in 2005. Why not have the feds target that toward local news media – “old media” and new, for-profit and nonprofit – to improve the cost-effectiveness of taxpayer spending and help local media?
  • The tax code should be change to remove obstacles to nonprofit news innovation. The philanthropic world needed to increase its commitment to nonprofit media, especially of the sort that is not yet being taken care of by the commercial sector.
These are just a few of many recommendations. Suffice it to say, the nation is at a critical moment. I hope your readers will review this analysis and let us know what they think. Here is an overview:

And here is the full report:

My thanks to Steve for taking the time to share his views with the Uphoff on Media community. Please let us know what you think about the role of the FCC and government in media's future.,

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