This past week, two important developments in the way the internet will be maintained and regulated occurred. The first was when the FCC announced it will not conduct a study on how news organizations, well, cover the news. The second was the FCC’s decision to create new rules ensuring that no matter who your internet provider is, it will not affect the service they are supposed to provide. While both decisions have different implications, both will have a great effect on the way people around the country are able to watch their favorite shows/movies and receive information.
Lets take a look at the news survey first. We all know that there are not many issues that receive bipartisan support in Congress, but not one out of 535 members spoke up about the need to ensure that American citizens receive all the information they need to live their lives. The “Critical Information Needs” study was supposed to be conducted by the FCC every three years with the goal of ensuring new or smaller news organizations were able to compete with the bigger names like The New York Times. But because someone inside the FCC decided to include questions on editorial content, instead of what the purpose of the survey was for, the entire thing was nixed.
Under any other circumstances common sense could have prevailed, where someone would have said “just take the questions about editorial content out of the survey”, like what Chairman Tom Wheeler originally proposed. But this happened in Washington DC, where all too often loud noise drowns out any logic that comes from people who might actually know what they are talking about.
One of the controversial questions reported by the Washington Post was “Have you ever suggested coverage of what you consider a story with critical information for your [viewers, listeners or readers] that was rejected by management? And: “What was the reason given for the decision?” As someone who has pitched many stories to reporters and editors, I can tell you there are many reasons as to why publishers would not consider something newsworthy. Sometimes it does not go with the branding for their target audience, there is not enough information for it to be reported on, or they do not want to run it because it was not given to them as an exclusive. Point being: a rejected story is not always about politics.
News outlets, no matter how big or small, need to have a stable growing audience that will keep them in business. Despite what political leanings the CEO or Board of Directors might have, they care more about people buying their product than whether they voted Democrat or Republican in the last election.
The example given above also had nothing to do with politics. National news outlets dedicated to politics 24/7 do not nearly account for the 280 news outlets which the survey was supposed to cover. Not to mention the fact most American’s do not watch MSNBC or Fox News, while local outlets are much more popular, and dare I say trusted by Americans.
After unsuccessfully searching for a full list of questions the FCC wanted to ask, I can only determine that this whole thing was an overreaction to something most people had little information about. This made it much easier for politicians to be against the survey than for it and it was not a fight worth taking on.
The FCC is an independent agency and part of their job is to make sure that American citizens are able to receive and have access to all the information critical to their quality of life. That is why they require public service announcements when selling air rights to radio and television providers and have worked to expand broadband access across the country. Asking what drives the news does not obstruct freedom of speech, but understanding why some information is spread while others is not is important to maintaining it.
If the survey found that subjects like public health, transportation, and the environment (as it was reported the survey was meant to cover), were not being properly covered for the American people, that would have been known when the FCC’s findings were reported to Congress. Those who could have lost the most is this information came out were the big media conglomerates, who do not want an unbiased report out there saying they are not doing their job.
The FCC’s new rules are also an important step to ensuring the everyone has access to the internet. One rule proposed by Chairman Wheeler is to enhance competition. With big companies like Time Warner Cable and Comcast threatening to merge (which would mean one company would have control over access the internet for millions of American’s), it is even more important that the FCC has oversight of these companies to ensure there is competition, keeping the rate internet providers charge is low.
But more competition is what threatens those who are already at the top. That is why it is worth it for Facebook to spend $19 billion on WhatsApp, why it was a victory for internet providers when it was ruled that the FCC could not regulate how internet traffic is delivered, and large media conglomerates looked at the “Critical Information Needs” survey as competition, and did not want to give their critics any more ammunition.
I’m not going to argue that all regulation is good, but when it comes to the internet and other major forms of communication, the United States has gotten it right. It would be a shame to see it all go away because of information that businesses refused to release because they cared more about their bottom line than reporting information that affects their quality of life.