News of the Moment
3/11/14 - The FCC as News Police: Right Hand, Meet Left Hand [link to this story]
Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is feeling his oats. After conducting a calculated and ideologically-driven campaign against a proposed FCC study of the practices and processes of journalism, the agency capitulated, killing the idea entirely. Pai reveled in his accomplishment: "In our country, the government does not tell the people what information they need. Instead, news outlets and the American public decide that for themselves."
Yet the FCC is in fact defining what news is, and it did so just last month—before Pai went on the warpath about the FCC as "newsroom police."
The case involves a $44,000 fine levied against WLS-AM in Chicago for airing newscasts from Workers Independent News (WIN)—a syndicated radio news program that I co-founded in the early 2000s. As I explained when the fine was first proposed last year, WIN is a fully credentialed news organization that upholds high standards of journalistic accuracy and integrity...and I should know, because I developed those standards. But labor news, which once upon a time enjoyed prominent coverage (especially in newspapers and on the radio), is all but impossible to find on the radio today. So in order to break this blackout, WIN pays commercial stations to carry their newscasts.
WLS ran afoul of the FCC because, in a fraction of the cases in which it aired Workers Independent News material, it failed to run a disclaimer that WIN had paid for the airtime. On a technical level, the FCC is simply upholding the law: if someone pays for airtime, and the material does not explicitly promote a product or service, the station needs to disclose that.
But the FCC's decision did not stop there. In explaining the severity of the fine, the Commission is quite explicit in its journalistic determination: Workers Independent News is, in fact, not news. After first defining it as "informational program material" (p. 2) and transcribing an entire WIN newscast (p. 2-3), the FCC then discusses the legal merits of the case. It first insinuates that Workers Independent News may meet the criteria of being misleading or deceptive, thus triggering the fine (p. 5).
I strongly encourage you to read the transcribed newscast. All things considered, it's fairly milquetoast, and certainly pitches no product, service, or persuasive ideology. Nothing substantively or stylistically out of line with what commercial news operations regularly air, which is kind of the point. WLS is not the only major-market news station to have aired Workers Independent News stories over the last decade-plus.
In assessing the severity of the fine, "the Commission considered the nature, circumstances, and gravity of the violations in noting that the announcements in question were formatted and presented as news" (p. 7), and chastised WLS for not correcting the record: "e.g. broadcast announcements notifying listeners that the 11 90-second advertisements previously aired were not, in fact, news stories...the station's listeners were exposed to material that appeared to be objective news stories deprived of the knowledge that the material was, in fact, prepared to convey the particular point of view of the organization that paid...the Licensee...to air it." (p. 8).
That's a pretty damning assessment of Workers Independent News, and there is absolutely no evidentiary basis for it. Now, who is more qualified to define journalism: someone like me, or a faceless bureaucrat in the FCC's Enforcement Bureau? The answer is obvious, but the opposite is reality. And the damage has already been done: when the FCC first proposed the WLS fine last year, Workers Independent News executive producer Frank Emspak reported a definite chilling effect.
"Before the FCC fine was announced, we had two radio stations that were interested in airing our news," he said. "Now we can’t get those stations to call us back. It feels like we might be on some sort of blacklist, but we’re not sure." One can only imagine the situation now that the fine has been formalized, and with it the FCC's editorial dictate.
The irony has not been lost on Emspak. "Fox News isn't fined by the FCC for being liars, but here [WLS is] fined for carrying so called 'fake news' about workers." Similarly, Ajit Pai cozied up to Fox News to use its platform as a political cudgel to beat the FCC into submission on the journalism study. This is precisely why the FCC could stand to learn more about how journalism actually works today.
There's no apparent recourse to appeal the FCC's ruling on the legitimacy of Workers Independent News. I am somewhat surprised that WLS did not argue this point in its initial appeal; while it might not have prevented the fine, it certainly would have prevented the FCC from making the very value judgment that (presumably) Commissioner Ajit Pai and I both abhor. I've asked Pai directly about this case but have been met with silence. I guess the news police are free to give beatdowns so long as the news in question is disenfranchised and unprofitable. But hey, that's justice in America.
3/4/14 - Clashing Realities: iBiquity vs. Consumer Reports [link to this story]
In a new blog post, iBiquity Digital Corporation Ceo Bob Struble reports back from the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show about the changing landscape of automotive infotainment, and HD Radio as an "indispensable requirement" in today's media environment.
HD Radio has some sort of foothold in "every car manufacturer" now, "and was built into 1/3 of all new cars sold in America last year," writes Struble. But that's not enough: "Cars are coming with big, bright color screens as part of these infotainment systems. Car designers want advanced HD Radio features like iTunes Tagging and Artist Experience - album cover art - to take advantage of those screens and provide listeners with the experience they expect." The takeaway: broadcasters need to step up HD adoption.
This year's CES saw the rise of the connected car, which Struble says broadcasters can compete with by offering HD-related datacast services like traffic and weather information. "Radio is jockeying with dozens of digital infotainment services in the car for listener time and attention," he observes. "It requires the industry to upgrade its basic offering to remain competitive in the dashboard. CES again showed that HD Radio technology is a fundamental competitive requirement in cars." The takeaway: broadcasters need to step up HD adoption.
Struble also laments the dwindling number of stand-alone radio receivers in the marketplace; HD's presence here is almost nil. He urges the industry to "work collectively to turn it around - with lower cost and more fully-featured home and portable products, with HD Radio technology as an essential feature. Maybe an initiative to develop specific programming or promotions that could shore up home listening as well." The takeaway: broadcasters need to step up adoption as well as work to prevent the abandonment of HD Radio by the consumer electronics industry.
For nearly 2,000 words, Struble waxes on about the "continued rapid progress" of HD Radio, but repeatedly prods radio broadcasters to "redouble their efforts to keep their hard fought place in the media mix." In his world, HD Radio is flying high.
Contrast that with Consumer Reports. The venerable product ratings/review agency just released their annual auto issue, and of three automotive features they recommend you avoid, HD Radio is one of them. Dissed in just three sentences: "It's advertised as having better fidelity than conventional AM/FM signals, but we've seen little benefit on the road. It's offered by most major carmakers. We've found that the [digital] signals tend to come and go, resulting in annoying changes in sound quality" (p. 9).
This represents a change in perspective since 2011, when Consumer Reports first gave HD Radio a mixed review. The sad thing is that the technology exists to improve or even eliminate this particular problem—but doing so would require iBiquity to open the black box surrounding the system's intellectual property. HD Radio's proprietary nature is integral to iBiquity's business model, and the company would rather continue to own all of nothing than a part of something meaningful.
The National Association of Broadcasters will hold their annual big-tent convention in Last Vegas next month. I asked the NAB if I could be a part of any panel/presentation that it was organizing on digital broadcasting, but was unsurprisingly denied. That's too bad because it's one of very few opportunities during the year for broadcasters to strategize directly about resuscitating radio's digital transition, and the hunger to do so is palpable. The next big opportunity will be the NAB Radio Show in September.
2/25/14 - Abusing the Bully Pulpit [link to this story]
It's common for members of the Federal Communications Commission to use their positions as bully pulpits for favored causes. For example, Frieda Hennock (the agency's first female Commissioner) pressed for an expansion of noncommercial broadcasting in the United States. Former Chairman Mark Fowler spoke loudly and often from the bully pulpit, decrying the regulation of media more broadly and precipitating the wildly neoliberal paradigm that has captured contemporary regulation.
More recently, Chairman William Kennard spoke out against media consolidation by advocating for the creation of the LPFM radio service, while Commissioner Mignon Clyburn spearheaded a drive to drastically reduce the rates for making calls from prisons, among many other initiatives during her stint as interim Chair.
But sometimes the bully pulpit provides a way to dissent from agency practices, the idea being that public scrutiny may pressure some change from within. Former Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein were famous for touring the country and holding public hearings to learn what actual Americans thought about the state of their media environment.
This is the new-found role of Ajit Pai. One of the two sitting Republican Commissioners, and nearing the halfway-point of his term, Pai has not shied from the bully pulpit. His love of AM broadcasting drove him to jumpstart an FCC proceeding to examine mechanisms for revitalizing the AM band. That's a great example of putting the bully pulpit to proactive use.
But earlier this month, Pai took to the pulpit to smear an FCC project looking into the process and practice of journalism. [He follows the lead of 16 House Republicans who have already expressed their disdain for this research.]
In a nutshell, the proposed study of Critical Information Needs would have deeply explored the news ecosystems of several U.S. media markets markets to better understand how the mix of stories that make up our public discourse actually become "the news." As a work of journalism research, the proposal is unprecedented: there's never been a truly systematic analysis of entire media markets with such ambitious depth and breadth, and the data collected would have had implications far beyond the FCC itself, as it addresses fundamental questions about the operation of the "public sphere" in modern America.
A prior attempt at this, commissioned in the early-00's by Chairman Michael Powell to justify the evisceration of the FCC's media ownership rules, was so badly conceived and executed that it failed the legitimate-research test, and ended up being instrumental in convincing the courts to block Powell's deregulatory zeal. So obviously, this is a touchy subject, and with Pai it hit a raw nerve.
He set up his critique by cherry-picking quotes from the 78-page proposal so that it reads like the FCC is preparing to "pressur[e] media organizations into covering certain stories." Pai then invoked one of the right-wing's favorite bugaboos: the Fairness Doctrine. Effectively repealed in 1987, he suggested the Critical Information Needs study "is a first step down the same dangerous path."
Finally, Pai questioned the FCC's authority to study journalism more broadly: "How can the news judgments made by editors and station managers impede small businesses from entering the broadcast industry? And why does the [study] include newspapers when the FCC has no authority to regulate print media?"
The simplistic and alarmist rhetoric has been red meat for the right-wing media, generating immense pressure on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to modify or cancel the Critical Information Needs study proposal. Initially, Wheeler stood by the proposal's legitimacy and necessity, but after Pai went on Fox News to ratchet up the pressure, the FCC signaled it would wholly revise it.
I honestly thought Pai might be above such demagoguery and intimidation. But since his claims are out there:
Research hurts nobody. Historically, regulatory agencies have conducted research to better understand the practical effects of regulation. Many times, this research is broadly informative over a range of potential policy arenas, and oftentimes it does not lead to actionable policy. Thus, Pai's claim that the FCC is heading down some slippery slope toward "newsroom policing" is laughable. Since the study never passed beyond the proposal-stage, it's impossible to predict what its policy-implications might have been. And since it was killed in the womb, as it were, then it's not a stretch to call it an abortion.
If Pai is implying that the passage of some political litmus test is required before the FCC can engage in research, that calls into question the fundamental integrity of the agency's business.
Not all research is based in economics. This is the Achilles' heel of the contemporary regulatory paradigm. Infatuated with marketplace theory to the point of religious fervor, and buttressed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996's mandate that regulation should be primarily weighed in the vein of its economic effects, Pai suggested that the FCC was somehow treading out of bounds with its Critical Information Needs study.
Besides the fact that this is an overly-simplistic reading of the Telecom Act, the imposition of such ideological blinders from above has decimated the agency's ability to do independent and comprehensive policy analysis. The FCC's increasing reliance on industry-provided research has created what former Commissioner Adelstein once called "faith-based regulation"—a situation in which media policy gets made in an environment almost wholly devoid of meaningful facts. Radio's digital transition is a poster-child for faith-based regulation's worst-case scenario.
Pai's blinders also allow him to ignore the fact that journalism is not a commodity like widgets that can be perfectly calculated and modeled. I doubt that he would disagree that what we often consider the "best" journalism is that which has civic effects that extend far beyond the economic realm. Disciples of neoliberalism hate market intangibles, but that doesn't make them go away.
It's hard to be a marketplace evangelist, then pick and choose your markets. The cheapest shot of Pai's piece has to be the claim that, since the Critical Information Needs proposal would have involved research into newspapers, it fell way outside the FCC's permissible scope of inquiry. Not only does this deny the above points, it cleverly denies the phenomenon of media convergence that, in other arenas, Pai praises with great zeal.
The refrain goes something like this: if all media are slowly evolving to occupy a single platform, then what's the point of having regulations for different types of media? You can clearly see the deregulatory appeal. But it's intellectually dishonest to worship convergence in the big picture and deny it in the gritty details. That's tantamount to claiming that gravity exists except in those situations that do not fully suit your political worldview.
This entire stew is an excellent example of the moral bankruptcy of modern media policymaking—heaven forbid we gain a better understanding of how information flows affect the practice of democracy.