Los Angeles — When former Washington Post reporter Sarah Cohen appeared at a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC), hearing on the role of government in modern journalism, she admits to being nervous.
“I’d never testified at one before and I also didn’t know whether they would like what I had to say,” says the Duke University journalism professor.
That tension between government and the so-called fourth estate, or the news media, is at the heart of a mounting war of words in the blogosphere as well as in print and broadcast over when, where, why and how lawmakers should interact – some say meddle – with today’s swiftly changing news environment.
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As traditional print and broadcast outlets have continued to dwindle at historic rates and so-called “new media” such as blogs and web-only news sites proliferate, the FTC has convened a task force on how government “can help,” with a series of public input meetings, ending June 15. At the same time, in May, Michigan Senator Bruce Patterson introduced a bill to create a state registry for journalists, which he hopes would give the public a means for verifying reporter’s qualifications and credentials.
The outcry over both has been swift and pointed.
Government Involvement a “Chilling Effect’?
“A government agency even having the discussion has a chilling effect,” says Jason Stverak, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, adding that the foundation of the nation’s democracy rests on the notion of a watchdog press, unregulated by the very institutions it is expected to monitor.
He dubs any official list vouching for a reporter’s “moral character,” as the Michigan law would, nothing less than an attempt to disenfranchise a new class of online citizen journalists who lack official affiliations.
Adds Villanova University media expert, Leonard Shyles, “I’m not interested in having a state board decide who’s accurate. Let the marketplace decide, because I’m going to believe Joe Schmoe after I corroborate his story thru the mosaic of stories that are out there on the Internet now, not because a government agency says I should.”
The pushback disappoints organizers.
“These are nothing more or less than information gathering meetings,” says FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan, who adds that the agency has no current plans other than to publish the hearing results this fall. Beyond that, points out Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, protestations aside, government has played a role in encouraging a healthy press from the dawn of the republic.
“First, we had an ink subsidy and then we had a postal subsidy both of which helped a free press to flourish,” she says.
Anti-Trust and Ensuring Access
There are legitimate roles for government with respect to the media, says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. They are primarily in the areas of anti-trust and ensuring access.
“Preventing any one company whether its Viacom or Fox or Steve Jobs from having too much power is a legitimate function of government,” she says adding, “as is ensuring that minorities and rural communities have the same access to the means of communication as others.”
Parsing government’s role in the new media world is not simple, says Harvard University business historian Nancy Koehn.
“I can’t find any period in history to compare to the rate and nature of change we are experiencing today,” she says. The debate itself reveals much about the issues facing the country, she adds.
“It’s in the zeitgeist,” she says, “What we are seeing is a response to unspoken angst about what is passing as well as what is emerging. Who will have influence over the flow of information is regarded as critical to the functioning of democratic society.”
The first FTC hearing took place in December, the second in March, and the third and final hearing will take place June 15 at the National Press Club in Washington.