In the 1960s television show Dragnet, Sgt. Joe Friday became famous for saying, ''Just the facts, ma'am.'' He said this whenever the witness expressed her opinion rather than stating the facts.
This year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will conduct the first comprehensive review of our country's TV- and radio-ownership restrictions, most of which are older than Dragnet.
Unfortunately, many have turned this critically important policy debate into a political one, substituting personal ideology and opinion for the facts. If we are to craft responsible media policy for the 21st century, everyone involved in this debate must set aside the rhetoric, put the public interest before political interest and focus on ''just the facts.''
Consider the so-called Golden Age of television. It's no wonder the remote control had not yet appeared. Getting up to change the channel wasn't much of a hardship because three networks dominated the airwaves. News, for example, was limited to a 15-minute evening broadcast and five-minute snippets throughout the day.
Today, choices abound. Even in small towns, the number of media outlets -- including cable, satellite, radio, TV stations and newspapers -- has increased more than 250% during the past 40 years. Independent ownership of those outlets is far more diverse, with approximately 139% more independent owners than there were 40 years ago.
This abundance means more programming, more choice and more control in the hands of citizens.
Today, I could not get by without my interactive guide, remote control and personal video recorder; there is simply too much programming competing for my attention. At any given moment, I have access to scores of TV networks devoted to movies and dramatic series; abundant educational programming, both for adults and for children; and niche programming to satisfy almost any taste.
News, commentary and public affairs programming -- the fuel of our democratic society -- are overflowing. At any time of the day or night, I can flip the dial among CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC and C-SPAN for national news and public affairs programming. Local news is aired six hours every day on just one of my local broadcast stations.
But the most striking difference between the world today and the world pre-remote is that Americans now have access to a bottomless well of information called the Internet. Google's news service puts 4,000 active news sources at my fingertips.
Not since the early days of this country, when the town hall meeting still dominated the democratic process, have people had more information about -- or access to -- their government.
As public servants, it is irresponsible for us to ignore these changes. The time has come to honestly and fairly examine the facts of the modern marketplace and build rules that reflect the digital world we live in today, not the bygone era of black-and-white television.
In the past two years, the industry has taken the FCC to court on five media-ownership rules. Two of the rules limit the national size of the networks and cable companies. The others prohibit owning a broadcast station and cable system in the same market, restrict the number of stations a broadcaster can own locally and require 60% of cable-channel capacity to be set aside for non-affiliated programming. Every time, the government has lost as a direct result of its failure to acknowledge and consider these dramatic marketplace developments. For example, in one case, the court faulted the FCC for ''providing no analysis of the state of competition in the television industry'' or even an explanation as to why the rule in question was necessary to ''either safeguard competition or to enhance competition.''
I am committed to setting legally sustainable limits on media ownership that serves the public interest. To that end, the FCC has commissioned 12 studies on how the media markets function today and how citizens use various media outlets. We also have received more than 2,000 comments on these issues from industry representatives, consumer groups and individuals.
This broadcast-ownership review will not be easy, but it is one of the most important FCC proceedings in many years. At issue are bedrock principles of our republic: freedom of speech and the press, freedom to associate and to petition government, freedom to acquire and hold property in accordance with the law. Our Founding Fathers understood that government should not have the power to restrict speech without deeply compelling justifications. The public is ill-served when the government binds these sacred principles to regulatory rules of a bygone era.
Joe Friday knew that only the facts would help him unravel a case. It is the same with this critically important FCC policy review. Only the facts will enable us to craft broadcast-ownership restrictions that ensure a diverse and vibrant media marketplace for the 21st century.
And just to keep the facts straight: Joe Friday never uttered the phrase attributed to him. It was truncated from ''All we want are the facts, ma'am.''
Philip Meyer holds the Knight Chair in Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.
USA TODAY 1/22/03
When a backhoe broke a gas line at a busy intersection in Chapel Hill, N.C., flames shot into the sky, electric power was shut down to avoid sparks, and citizens tuned to local radio station WCHL to find out what was happening.
All they got was music. When they called the station to complain, no one was there.
The news-free airwaves were a consequence of a 1996 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to let broadcasters own an unlimited number of radio stations. That move led to an offer from an out-of-town buyer that persuaded owner Jim Heavner to sell WCHL.
The new owner slashed costs by consolidating stations and automating their content.
No live person answered the telephone because a computer was running the station. It played music all day and night, with announcements and commercials dropped in from a recording that took a live operator only a few hours a week to make.
Now another big broadcasting consolidation is afoot. The FCC is getting ready to relax rules that keep a single corporation from dominating a local TV market or owning TV, radio and newspapers in the same community.
Also up for revision are rules that keep a single company from controlling access to more than 35% of all TV households in the nation.
The precise effects are unknowable. When the radio rules were relaxed, nobody said, "Wouldn't it be great if most radio stations were run by a few companies with computers and no local news?" If the same thing happened to television, we could get more automated, cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all productions.
The FCC was created in 1934 in response to the rapid diffusion of radio broadcasting in the late 1920s. Its purpose was to regulate the use of the limited number of frequencies to ensure that their control was independent, diverse and local.
If just one company owns the newspapers and the broadcasters in your town, you may still get a diversity of voices. Or you may not. It depends on the owners. However, the chances are pretty good that those owners will be absentee corporations without much personal concern for the community.
Look at what happened to radio. Before the 1996 rule change, the largest radio-group owner had fewer than 65 stations. Today, one company, Clear Channel Communications, owns 1,225. Radio ad rates have increased almost 90% since 1996. Radio listening is decreasing.
A corporation has some of the legal characteristics of a person but with a huge moral difference. As George Washington University professor Lawrence E. Mitchell observed (quoting an English jurist), the corporation has "no soul to be damned and no body to be kicked."
It's just a moneymaking machine.
Jim Heavner's soul was hurting when disappointed Chapel Hill citizens found that their radio news source was gone. After the gas explosion in October 2001, he regained control of WCHL and gave it an all-talk format.
Then last December's ice storm struck. Homes were without electricity for up to a week. It was WCHL that kept the town together. Citizens huddled around battery radios and called up with advice on keeping warm, finding firewood, avoiding blocked streets and finding merchants who still had flashlight batteries. One even called with the cheery news that, in the darkened town, the stars were shining more brightly in the cold sky.
An advantage of cross-ownership is that newspapers and broadcasters can integrate and enrich their newsgathering operations. But that sort of convergence is happening without ownership ties. WCHL broadcasts reports from newspaper reporters in a deal with the Chapel Hill Herald that Heavner describes as "a handshake."
Collapsing independent, local media companies into large organizations has the theoretical advantage of reducing transaction costs. If content creators and distributors are all in the same company, every deal can be done with a handshake. But as the AOL Time Warner case reveals, the diverse elements in a large company don't always trust one another enough, and chaos results. A free market of independent suppliers is more efficient.
One justification used for the forthcoming FCC action is that the Internet now ensures a diversity of independent, local voices. Not really. The Internet is just a distribution system. All it can do is add to the clutter without a strong local entity that knows how to get information into our heads, not just our hands.
That task requires processing: filtering, interpreting and focusing.
The job can be done only by someone who is part of the community.
What we're likely to get instead are media designed as cheap platforms for expensive advertising. There is so much money to be made in this transition - and no well-heeled opposition to it - that it probably can't be stopped.
We should remember that threats to freedom come not only from government; they can come from big business, too.
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