The FCC announced an extension of the comment filing deadline in its proceeding looking at the Future of the Media (see our summary here). At the same time, the Steven Waldman, the Special Assistant to Chairman Genachowski, made a public appearance at the FCC’s open meeting last week to explain what is intended by this study – and from his comments and those of the Commissioners, this will be a wide-ranging investigation looking at how FCC and other government regulations can insure diversity in the media so that citizens and communities can "get the information that they need."  In Commissioner Copps comments, this includes looking at what public interest obligations are appropriate for the new digital media.  Comments in this proceeding, which were to be filed in March, are now to be submitted by May 7, 2010.

The appearance of Mr. Waldman (whose appointment we wrote about here) came at the very end of a long Commission open meeting where extensive discussions were held on reforming the FCC’s internal decision-making processes and about the broadband deployment report which has consumed the FCC for many months, and which will be delivered to Congress in the next few weeks.  But, while short, the discussion with Mr. Waldman was interesting as he highlighted the plans for his task force.  He opened his comments by initially noting how this was a time of great change in the media, where there is "incredible diversity" brought forth by the new technologies, but that there was also a "collapse" of traditional business models, which could bring about the end of "accountability journalism" (presumably journalism from reputable journalistic sources with some degree of accountability and reliability).  Because of these perceived changes, according to the comments made at the meeting, this task force was established to determine what the government can do to make sure that communities get the information that they need.

To conduct this investigation, the task force will look not only at the broadcast media, but also at all other ways in which citizens and communities can get access to information needed by an informed population.  The proceeding will look at more than journalism, but also at all the ways in which the public gets information – including educational material that is directed to children and information about local emergencies and about government actions.  It will also look at which populations are most at risk of loosing their sources of information by the current transformation of the media. 

The investigation will also tie into several other ongoing proceedings at the FCC.  Specifically mentioned were the broadband deployment report, the FCC’s inquiry into the information needs of children, and the multiple ownership proceeding which will be conducted this year by the Commission.  Apparently, the task force has already been working with these other groups within the FCC. 

The inquiry is meant to be wide-ranging, and to seek the public’s input into all decisions.  The Website already set up by the task force is but one way in which such comments will be gathered.  Mr. Waldman noted that the site was already producing some interesting information in the way of comments from people writing in about what they are getting (or not getting) from their local media.  Public workshops are also planned – with Commissioner Copps expressing interest in attending these workshops, and urging field hearings so that the public can voice their concern with the actions of the media.  Mr. Waldman expects that the Report that he is to prepare will be completed before the end of the year. A PowerPoint of Mr. Waldman’s presentation is available here.

 Commissioner Copps written statement welcomed the inquiry, calling it central to the needs of the country and perhaps the most important inquiry that the FCC can take.  Commissioner Copps stated that journalism’s "fuel tank is approaching empty", and that action needed to be taken soon.  On the other hand, Commissioner McDowell, while welcoming the inquiry, raised some very fundamental questions that must be addressed by the inquiry – essentially whether any government action is necessary at all.  McDowell pointed out that journalism has survived several revolutions in the past, and always managed to survive.  Why, he asked, should the current changes be any different.

The issues raised by Commissioner McDowell are important ones.  The Inquiry seems to assume that there is a problem that needs to be addressed by government action.  They assume that the revolution in the media is a bad thing.  While there is always an acknowledgment that there are now new sources of information to the public (like this blog, perhaps), they seem to assume that the new media cannot provide the information that the public needs.  But is that really true?  It may in fact be that this information can be much more diverse and vibrant than the other sources of information that it displaces (or, more likely, supplements).  Hopefully, a more hopeful view of the future of the media than that posited by some of the supporters of the inquiry will emerge from the comments filed in this proceeding. 

Another question that needs to be addressed is how far the FCC’s power really extends.  The inquiry asks questions not only about the broadcast media, but also about the quality of information provided by other old and new media, and the business prospects of these media.  Some comments were raised as to whether the FCC should be imposing public interest obligations on other media (see, for instance, some of the proposals for children’s television obligations on some new media – including games and the Internet).  The FCC traditionally has not regulated the content of media other than that provided by broadcasters (and, to a very limited extent, that provided by cable and satellite television).  Should it really be looking at imposing obligations on service provided by mobile devices and other new means of communications?  It is another important question that needs to be addressed in this proceeding.