Skip to main content

To preserve democracy, preserve journalism

By Tom Glaisyer and Sarah Stonbely, Special to CNN
  • This month, the FCC reported on the state of U.S. media, say Tom Glaisyer and Sarah Stonbely
  • The huge report sees news and information as essential to our democracy, they say
  • But the report does not go far enough in supporting journalism, which is in jeopardy, they say
  • Glaisyer & Stonbely: The FCC, Congress, states, and other agencies need to aim higher

Editor's note: Tom Glaisyer is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute. Sarah Stonbely is a graduate fellow at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- What information is necessary in the 21st century?

On June 9, the Federal Communications Commission issued "The Information Needs of Communities," a report of nearly 500 pages. It was written by Steven Waldman, an accomplished journalist and Internet entrepreneur, and dozens of collaborators. It's a comprehensive, bird's-eye view of U.S. media that begins with a basic, given principle: news and information are essential to our democracy.

The report's prominent theme is the massive loss of on-the-ground journalism capacity. Spending on journalism has dropped by somewhere between $800 million and $1.6 billion since 2000, and the number of working journalists has shrunk to levels of 40 years ago (when the U.S. population was two-thirds today's size).

A confluence of forces has shattered the funding model for legacy media such as newspapers and network broadcast news, and fragmented the audience across the Internet and cable television. As a result, thousands of newsroom jobs have been lost over the past few years. Without professional journalists, who are paid to keep citizens informed and politicians honest, the very health of our democracy is in peril.

Unheralded technologies have a renewed sense of mission in such an environment. Low-power radio, formerly prominent only during disasters, becomes crucial in a world of niche media. Cable public-access television channels, known to broadcast city council meetings and interview shows with neighborhood eccentrics, become indispensable when 520 local television stations offer no news at all.

Despite these alarming trends, the Waldman report says that the "media landscape is more vibrant than ever" and that perhaps what we are seeing is the emergence of "the best media system the nation has ever had."

This is possible, but we'd judge this transitional moment with less of a rosy eye. It is impossible to ignore the massive loss in local reporting resources or in foreign correspondents. Media might be abundant, but professional oversight is curtailed.

Moreover, in a world where media and information is increasingly delivered through the Internet, policies for an open Internet and universal access are, as the report states, "an essential ingredient" for "the information health of communities." The FCC must continue to make absolutely clear that broadband Internet access is a right, not a luxury.

It seems, however, that the FCC has hewed to the political winds. The report falls short of meeting the challenges that our country is now facing. As FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who has been attentive to these issues for many years, stated upon the release of the report, "The policy prescriptions ... don't follow from the diagnosis."

For example, though the severe lack of federal funding for the U.S. public broadcasting system is clearly outlined in the report, the policy prescriptions to remedy the situation are nowhere to be found. The report's call to individuals and foundations to put more money into media is welcomed, but federal funding for nonprofit media has to be increased to make an actual impact. We need public and community media that isn't struggling for resources.

Even more alarming is the report's persuasive analysis that the system for making sure that broadcasters are acting in the public interest -- a mandate of their licenses -- is broken. One example from the report, sponsoring local reality-show tryouts, is hardly enough to fulfill broadcasters' obligation to the public interest.

The public needs to be able to hold their local stations to account, and the transparency initiative Waldman proposes could help them do this, but they can't do it all on their own. The FCC needs to act more forcefully when broadcasters fail to serve their communities.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is impossible to ignore the inequalities created by changes in media or the harmful effects of the loss of journalists, newsrooms, and oversight. Local communities are suffering from a vacuum of relevant local news and accountability in news coverage.

Our country deserves media that engages its audience as citizens, not just as consumers. To secure that, we're going to need the FCC, Congress, states, and other agencies to aim higher than the recommendations in the Waldman report. After all, it's our democracy that is at stake.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.