"Comprehensive media reform." That term has an interesting "ring" to it, don't you think?And depending on the outcome of this year's national election, it could become a serious policy issue in Washington.
Don't believe me? Consider this. For most of the years of the George W. Bush presidency, there has been a slow yet steadily emerging "media reform movement" across the United States. Non-profit organizations, touting themselves as "consumer advocate" and "watchdog" groups, have been sprouting-up around the country, lamenting the lack of consumer choice and the content and quality of information that American consumers receive via local and national media. Activists within this movement use morally high-minded terms such as "media justice" (whatever this means), "democratizing the media," and "diversity."
Now arguably, in our present era of blogging, "citizen journalism," and YouTube-style web portals, the media landscape is more diverse now that it ever has been. But the media reform activists ignore the many ways in which our free-market economy has allowed anyone and everyone to communicate to the world, and how it has given rise to a greater diversity of media content than ever before. Instead, these activists express concern over what they believe are "alarming trends" in American media, and seek legislative "solutions" to these trends.
I observed this myself back in 2003, at an event on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe. I sat through a series of lectures by a professor from Yale University, lamenting the phenomena of media consolidation ("too much power over America's airwaves is concentrated in the hands of too few companies"), the decline of "local newspapers," and too few options for television news.
This all struck me as odd. Metropolitan newspapers (including this one) have in recent years begun publishing local, regionalized versions of their product as they never have before. Local television news operations are far better equipped and capable than in the past. And the Internet has given rise to untold numbers of information sources, both local and national.
But then I saw a rundown from the fourth annual National Conference For Media Reform in Minneapolis, held last month. Guess who was on the list of featured guest speakers? Bill Moyers was tops on the list - not exactly an objective journalist, in my view. And then there was Dan Rather - the man who dragged CBS News through the gutter and was ultimately fired by the organization for lying about the president of the United States in the election year of 2004. To say that the conference had a "left-leaning bent" to it would be a understatement.
And while all this has been going on, there has been a growing chorus in Washington for media reform. Several key Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are already preparing the way for the return of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, the former FCC policy that requires broadcast outlets to give "equal time" to ideological and political media content. This policy was abandoned in the early 1980s, and freed up radio stations to air politically driven talk formats. Commercially, such formats have been a huge success. Yet, California Sen. Diane Feinstein, New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have all stated that it's time to bring the Fairness Doctrine back.
And this leads us back to Election 2008. It seems crazy that with economic and national security challenges staring us in the face, Congress would be pre-occupied with something like media content. But Congress often doesn't make sense.
And, as I said, depending on the outcome of this election, you can bet that "comprehensive media reform" will be all the talk in Washington.