Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, might be one of the few experts arguing for increased regulation of broadcast media. There isn't enough broadcast news reporting across the nation, he says, and the Federal Communications Commission could fix the problem.
Until it began a course of deregulation nearly three decades ago, the FCC required a commitment to local news coverage as a condition of license renewal. That policy should be reinstated, Kunkel argued in a Dec. 22 New York Times op-ed article written with directors of six other journalism schools and Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Kunkel's co-authors are Roderick P. Hart, dean of the University of Texas journalism school; Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy; Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School; John Lavine, dean of the Northwestern University journalism school; Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri journalism school; David M. Rubin, dean of the Syracuse University school of public communications; and Ernest Wilson, dean of the University of Southern California school of communication. They are all members of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. Kunkel said Columbia's Lemann was the lead author.
The call for more broadcast news comes at a time of great change for the news industry. On Dec. 18, the commission partially lifted a ban prohibiting newspapers from owning television or radio stations in the same geographic market. Under the new rules, newspapers in the top 20 media markets can acquire a radio or television station, as long as the TV station isn't one of the top four in that market. In media markets below the nation's top 20, newspapers and broadcast outlets can converge as well, but mergers will be approved only after passing certain tests.
FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said the commission's decision facilitates local reporting by allowing broadcast profits to pay for newspaper operations. But if Martin is trying to improve local journalism, the deans argue, why not increase regulation and bring back the old licensing procedures?
"Our profession needs to cast its reluctance to discuss broadcast regulation aside, and to let its voice be heard, loud and clear - on behalf of local reporting," they wrote. "The outcome of FCC policy that matters most to us is not who owns what, but how much news gathering goes on."
The Sun caught up with Kunkel for his take on the issue. The following is an edited transcript. What would you all like the FCC to do?
I think as a group we would like to see the FCC be more vigilant and diligent about what it asks broadcasters before they get relicensed. Up until 25 years ago, the FCC took the renewal process very seriously, but in the next generation the renewal process has basically become next to nothing and kind of a standing joke. The laissez-faire approach to renewal is hurting the local journalism done at television and radio stations. And so we're saying that, quite aside from what is done with cross-ownership, we want the FCC to make the stations cover their communities as part of their license renewal. Why did the old renewal policy end?
It was just part of the Reagan-era efforts to try to get government regulation reduced in general. As part of that, the FCC dramatically reduced what it required of broadcasters in their public affairs responsibilities. It was done in part under the guise of simplicity, and there's no question that the renewal process was onerous, but now it's so easy it's called "postcard renewal." So even if you assume that the FCC had the best of intentions when it started that process a generation ago, we now know that the communities we serve are paying the price for this. How was local coverage hurt as a result of this?
After the Telecom Act of 1996, for instance, there was a frenzy of consolidation in the radio industry as several major companies bought hundreds and hundreds of stations around the country. And one of the upshots of that was that a lot of these small-market stations went to standardized programming that was done in New York, or something like that, and all of these stations that once upon a time had local reporters to tell people what was going on suddenly didn't have anyone working there anymore. And, to a lesser extent, you see it in television, as well. In general, we know that television stations, as they have been trying to hang on to their high profit margins, have been reducing editorial positions. They may be on the air more often in some markets with their newscasts than they were in the past, but they tend to have smaller staffs. There are obviously stations reporting local news in Washington and Baltimore. Are you saying that in some places there is no local news coverage at all?
America, you know, it's not the two coasts, and those of us who live on the two coasts sometimes get lulled into a sense that we're America. Well, we're not America. Most of America is what lies between the two coasts, and that is in many ways the country of small communities and small markets. And, literally in a lot of these communities - especially in radio - whereas they used to have at least one local reporter keeping an eye on things, they just don't now. They just disappeared. Many of these same communities don't have any local television at all. It's not a question of soft news/hard news or whatever. It's that there may literally be no broadcast reporters in the community at all. Is it feasible to ask small local stations that never focused on local news reporting to suddenly do so?
I think in a lot of these really small markets it would have to be a skill set that would have to be acquired, or at least reacquired, because it's been such a long time since it's been expected of them. But having said that, we're not talking about the FCC telling Minot, N.D., "You have to have 20 journalists at your radio station." I think we're talking about fairly modest expectations and really just that commitment to try. What that commitment is can be subject to some interpretation. All we're saying is, isn't this important enough to the public to at least be in the formula for renewal? Most large markets have local news reporting shows. Would they automatically meet FCC license renewal requirements?
It would be a lower hurdle for them to get over than it would be for some, but on the other hand I would assume that they would apply a sliding scale. To whom much is given, much is expected. If you are a station in Washington, what it's going to take for you to meet a commitment to local community coverage is going to be higher than it would be if we go back to Minot, N.D. Would the stations in Washington fairly readily meet that commitment today? Yes, I think most them would. But that's because they are choosing to invest in news of their own accord, not because the FCC is asking it of them. Do you think the public will give this much attention?
When the FCC tried about three years ago to have a sweeping relaxation of the cross-ownership rules, a ton of interest groups from all across the political spectrum, whether liberal or conservative, rose up in opposition to it. The FCC and Congress were hit with several million individual complaints about it, and a lot of us were surprised at how strong the public reaction was. So I think that it's clear that this notion of too much media consolidation and too much media power in too few hands is something that resonates with people. What about Congress and the courts?
It wouldn't surprise me if it ends up back in the courts, because that's where it's been for the last several years, and it won't surprise me if there's not some congressional action. But I think in a presidential election year, political issues just tend to stay up in the air because everybody's too busy trying to get re-elected to pass much law. What do you think of broadcast journalism in the Baltimore-Washington area? Can it be improved through increased broadcast regulations?
I think broadcast reporting everywhere would be improved by this. We have a lot of terrific broadcast journalists in both the Baltimore and Washington markets.
Having said that, I still am concerned at the extent to which the police blotter leads the local news in a lot of stations in the Washington area much of the time. And I don't feel like we get enough news about policy, for instance - and I'm talking about Washington or Baltimore public policy, not federal policy. I don't think we get enough coverage of what's going on in our communities. Think about how often you're seeing anything covered on the Washington stations, for instance, about College Park, that wasn't "The students set a sofa on fire," or something like that. College Park, Hyattsville - these are all communities that there are dynamic changes happening, but you virtually never see issues like that on the local news, and that's too bad.
Alia Malik, a former Sun intern, is a senior journalism student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.