The Financial Meltdown & Media Deregulation Connection

Much of journalism has a `deer-caught-in-the-headlights’ quality as it reports on the current fiscal crisis. Why was this issue off the radar screen for so many reporters and producers? Part of it is that the very system that underlies professional reporting is connected (and funded) by the very forces that have helped wreck the economy. But over the last ten years, journalism in the U.S. has undergone a further serious deterioration, with its ranks thinned. Investigative reporting is on the endangered professions list (with investment bankers perhaps now joining that list as well).

Media consolidation has helped play a role here, further contributing to a news culture where reporters and their parent news organizations really don’t spend time examining beneath the surface of events. All the media mergers we have witnessed since the 1996 Telecom Act has decimated newsrooms, slashed news budgets, and has left journalism on life support (at best).

Just as the Congress failed to engage in meaningful oversight of the financial markets–and spurred the crisis along through deregulation– so too have they largely failed to address the impact of what’s called media deregulation (which meant eliminating rules designed to benefit both the public and press with policies that favored their largely giant corporate owners). As we write in Digital Destiny, Republican and Democrats have long been captured by the influence-wielding (and job promising and donation giving) Big Media “well-connected.” We blame the current deep crisis that has undermined the country’s system of reporting and journalism on the failure of policymakers to ensure meaningful diversity of ownership, public service rules, and new proactive policies which would have addressed this critical problem.

Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s key congressional patron was Sen. John McCain. Powell’s enthusiastic and uncritical embrace of a deregulatory philosophy during his recent tenure at the helm of that oversight agency helped spur media mergers, journalism lay-offs and other editorial cutbacks. Powell is currently a “technology adviser” for the McCain campaign.  For those of you who are interested in learning more about Mr. Powell and Senator McCain, it’s covered in Digital Destiny (New Press, 2007).

We don’t want to suggest our column is intended to be partisan. Many people know we have been equally critical for the failure of William Kennard, Mr. Powell’s predecessor during the Clinton era, to respond to the call by consumer groups to implement open access for broadband (now known as network neutrality). Mr. Kennard is one of Senator Obama’s major donors. We were also critical of Reed Hundt, Mr. Kennard’s predecessor. Both Pres. Clinton and Al Gore hailed the passage of the 1996 Telecom Act. Frankly, we have concerns about the fate of public interest media and telecommunications policies regardless of who wins the election. But it’s important, in our view, to recall history–including the recent events involving former FCC chairman Michael Powell. How both candidates would fix the mess with our communications system–including ensuring meaningful content and ownership diversity for digital media–should be part of the national debate.

We should realize by now that deregulation of the financial markets contributed to a culture of greed that bought down—at taxpayers expense–an economic house of cards. Fixing our system of journalism for the digital era must be on the policy agenda [we need legions of investigative reporters asap].

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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