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Lawmaker Weighs Government Intervention In The Media

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WASHINGTON, December 2, 2009 - A senior lawmaker on Wednesday weighed in on government intervention in the media at a Federal Trade Commission forum convened to consider an alleged decreasing amount of original reporting taking place, as media outlets shut down or layoff journalists in the face of falling revenues.

The widespread availability of broadband technology plays an important role both in the alleged problem – competition to traditional print media revenue streams – and in the proposed solution: widespread availability of online content funded through a variety of means.

“In 1967, Congress made the judgment that public funding for radio and television was important because it would ensure the provision of content deemed valuable in the public interest to serve large societal goals – content that the market would be unable to produce without some government support,” said House Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., speaking before the Federal Trade Commission.

“Some argue that this model, applied to media publishers, could preserve and maintain key functions of modern journalism – investigative reporting, foreign news bureaus, wide-ranging coverage of the arts, culture, science and social trends – by cushioning the economic squeeze publishers are facing,” said Waxman. “Others have raised red flags about the dangers of government support of the press. I have an open mind on all the above proposals.”

“In the face of continuing closures of mastheads across the country, I see every reason to discuss them,” Waxman continued, in remarks he delivered during the second day of a “new media” workshop at the FTC.

Waxman suggested the media industry and related parties come up with a consensus on a proposal that is in the public interest.

“Congress can’t impose a solution to this issue. It needs to emerge from a consensus-building process involving the industry and the larger public,” he said. Waxman said these “initiatives require bipartisan support” and “those advocating for public funding need to address ... the scope of such support, in terms of the activities to be supported and the dollars required.”

He added that public funding advocates also need to “respond to the concern that government support of journalism would lead to government control of content” and explain the source of revenues, and raised the issue of a “market failure” in the media.

The lawmaker raised a number of ideas that have been circulated to improve the state of the media industry including the establishment of new legal or tax structures for publishers, more philanthropic support for media outlets, a reexamination of antitrust laws, a review of media ownership restrictions, the exploration of new sources of journalism, and the prospect of public funding for quality journalism.

Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, supported Waxman. “Government has played an important role in news and journalism since its earliest days. As the media landscape evolves, policymakers have a responsibility to the public to create policies that can support better journalism and newsgathering in the Internet age,” he said.

In the past, others have noted the importance of having as much separation as possible between the government and media in a democracy.

During the FTC conference Wednesday, a report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications & Society Program on information needs in a democracy was highlighted.

The Knight-Aspen study puts forth a number of recommendations, including increasing support for public service media ventures aimed at meeting community information needs, funding public libraries and other community institutions to serve as centers of digital and media training, and making sure that every local community has at least one high-quality online hub.

The report calls for supporting the “activities of information providers to reach local audiences with quality content through all appropriate media, such as mobile phones, radio, public access cable, and new platforms.”

It recommends that standards be set for nationwide broadband availability and public policies be adopted to encourage consumer demand for broadband services. The Knight-Aspen report also calls for “a national commitment to open networks as a core objective of internet policy.”

Winter covered technology policy issues for five-and-a-half years as a reporter for the National Journal Group. She has worked for USA Today, the Washington Times, the Magazine Group, the State Department’s International Visitor’s Program, and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. She also taught English at a university in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.


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