Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Remaking the FCC?

The current economic crisis has driven ongoing comparisons between the present day and the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s. Besides Lincoln, FDR has been the leader most often cited as a possible model for President Obama as he faces today''s many economic and domestic challenges. Roosevelt’s first hundred days, the fifteen major pieces of legislation he signed during them, and the effective creation of the modern U.S. government as we have come to know it make such parallels instructive if also cautionary tales for our time.

Amidst all the commentary and critique, and in an era of globalizing media and technology, it’s perhaps telling that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has not been included in most debates about the legacy of that earlier era. To be sure, the FCC was not part of the institutional broadside launched by Roosevelt against the economic collapse. The commission was established by the Communications Act of 1934, which built, in turn, on many of the provisions of the Radio Act of 1927. Then, like now, radio and communications media more generally are not readily conceived to fall within the government’s purview for supporting social and economic well-being. Media in America have tended, instead, to be understood a realm of free speech outside of government control.

In practice, that has meant media are left less to the people and more to corporations. As media historian Robert McChesney has persuasively argued, government regulation of radio emerged at a time of public fascination with the medium and foreclosed an immense range of public and political uses of the new technology in favor of consolidated corporate interests. In the process, the early Congress effectively gave over the “public airwaves” to commercial broadcasters like General Electric with the FCC providing oversight. (McChesney’s Telecommunications, Mass Media, and the Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 is an exceptionally well-researched and revealing account.) It was a defining moment for the convergence of free speech and free markets.

Like many of his other appointees, Julius Genachowski, Obama’s choice to head the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has drawn praise. A former Harvard Law classmate of the President’s, Genachowski served as a legal adviser to the FCC in the 1990s before working for various dot-com’s (like expedia.com and hotel.com) and serving as a board member to major media companies (including General Electric and USA Networks). He later counseled Obama during his campaign on media and communications issues. Expectations are that Genachowski will shift the FCC’s priority away from telecommunications providers and toward some combination of enabling technology innovation and supporting increased media user access and possibly rights. One possibility, as The Economist and others have reported, is the creation of subsidies for the promotion of high-speed broadband, particularly wireless broadband.

That’s encouraging news after eight years of FCC myopia focusing on loosening cross-media ownership restrictions and moral micro-oversight of broadcasting. Unlike the former chairman, Kevin Martin, who was a lobbyist and eager at every turn to enable industries to expand freely, Genachowski will likely push back against the media consolidation enabled by its Bush-era predecessors and encourage diversity in media ownership. The effects should both be in the public interest and ultimately valuable to the marketplace.

Yet one wonders what more might be possible were Genachowski, with Obama’s and Congress’s support, to re-conceive of the FCC as the lead agency in a coordinated effort to upgrade our media and communications landscape. If, as the President has rightly said, our transportation infrastructure needs serious improvement and renewal, what about our digital infrastructure? Again, both regulatory precedent and the public value of unrestricted free speech make such wider-ranging reform unlikely. Even more compelling is the fear of free marketers that their opportunity will be usurped by an expanded government role. These are undoubtedly important concerns. But it is also necessary to remember that the digital revolution through which we’re living will have historical consequences even greater than the economic downturn we’re currently suffering. What might be worth considering in response is a fuller partnership between government and industry that would coordinate media and technological development in more efficient and concerted ways. Especially considering its history at the nexus of government, commercial and citizen concerns over the most appropriate operation of communications in American society, the FCC would be a very good place for that conversation to start.

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