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Why Grantmaking on Media Policy Still Matters

June 15, 2009

(Becky Lentz, an assistant professor of media and public policy at McGill University in Montreal, was program officer for electronic media policy at the Ford Foundation from 2001-2007. An initial version of this article was commissioned by Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media.)

Finger_frame Noteworthy U.S. journalist and media reform advocate Bill Moyers has said that "speech is the oxygen of democracy." Assuming he's right, then by analogy our communications infrastructure serves as its vital respiratory system. Yet, too few realize the importance of the media policies that govern how speech flows into and out of our democratic body politic in relation to how our democracy functions.

Media policy advocates for the public interest have won many significant victories in the past several years:

But what do these victories mean to John and Jane Q. Public and the well-being of our democracy?

Like environmental protection laws and regulations, media policy involves safeguarding our broadcasting and telecommunications environment. It guarantees non-discriminatory and affordable access to the means to speak and be heard. In today's increasingly globalized media and communications environment, keeping democracy's respiratory system for speech accessible requires diligent attention to how media policy issues are addressed -- by corporations, the Office of the President, Congress, the FCC and other regulatory agencies, as well as the courts. This is necessary because, increasingly, electronic communication networks form the backbone of many other essential public and private services such as education, health care, trade, economic development, national security, and finance. Yet, despite its significance, the dynamic field of public interest-oriented individuals and organizations involved in media policy work in the United States continues to receive less public and funder attention than its counterparts in these equally important issue sectors.

Media policy is no less important than, say, environmental policy. Unlike environmentalism, however, media policy issues are difficult to describe in ways that instantly engage hearts, minds, and imaginations. Consider asking a friend or family member what environmentalists do and you're likely to get a straightforward answer regardless of whether that person agrees with environmental activists' tactics or priorities: environmentalists work to protect scarce, essential, and therefore valuable public resources; the quality of our air, water, and land depend on it. Pose the same question about media policy advocates, and the question will probably inspire a puzzled response -- if you get one at all.

Unlike environmental and food or drug industry regulation, it is more difficult to "see" the impact of good or bad media policy. We "get," visually and viscerally, how poor regulation results in polluted water or air, contaminated food, and dangerous medicines. However, the impacts of a deregulated media environment can be harder to see, much like it has been difficult to see until recently the effects of lax regulation in the financial services industry.

Due in part to the challenges of communicating about media policy, much of the communication about its issues -- including media diversity, digital TV, electronic privacy, concentrated media ownership, copyright law, Internet governance, and broadband access -- has too often lacked a compelling, cohesive, and engaging narrative that sparks political passions. As a high-level representative from a prominent private foundation once suggested, media policy is a "second bounce" issue: something subordinate to more frontline concerns. Established policy areas such as education, health care, the environment, economic development, and human rights occupy a policy foreground, whereas media policy concerns operate in the background -- except when their effects come to light in controversies around news, public affairs, or entertainment content.

Take for example the January 2002 chemical spill in Minot, North Dakota, that ignited national outrage about radio industry consolidation. According to Eric Klinenberg, author of Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media, "a train derailed...leaking thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into the air. One person died and hundreds were treated for immediate health problems. The city's six non-religious commercial radio stations -- all owned by Clear Channel -- never aired warnings for local residents." (Quoted from Democracy Now’s January 2007 piece "EXCLUSIVE...911 Calls in North Dakota Town Reveal Dangers of Media Consolidation.")

Unfortunately, this type of controversy rouses the public's interest in media regulation only momentarily, in the same way that an episodic salmonella outbreak might stir consumers to take note for a week or so. Add to this the fact that consumer protection in the U.S. focuses primarily on products, not services like broadcasting. Consumer concerns about obscenity or indecency in the media, perceived bias in news coverage, contested children's programming, or the filtering of online content by Internet service providers cannot be addressed by simply recalling a product from vendors' store shelves.

Even so, I would suggest that all these issues are merely symptoms of underlying structural concerns regarding the respiratory system for the oxygen of democracy: speech. Addressing them requires legislating, regulating, or adjudicating the structure of our media and communications system, as opposed to controlling the content flowing through it. This is because media policy in the U.S. is situated within the legal framework of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

To be sure, there is a lively ongoing debate in this country about the role of government in our society, including the benefits and drawbacks of regulation itself. Despite this, I suspect few would dispute that there is a valuable regulatory role for government. The food and drug industries are telling examples.

With the regulation of speech itself prohibited, the focus moves to the structure of the industries that produce, distribute, exhibit, and facilitate the exchange of information using electronic communication resources -- the public airwaves, in the case of radio and television broadcasting, along with cable and telephone networks.

Thus, funders interested in helping to sustain a democratic infrastructure for speech, information, and knowledge exchange should consider supporting that which contributes to keeping industry, elected officials, and media regulators on their toes: a healthy sector of organizations that can advocate for the public's interests on a variety of media policy issues.

By "healthy sector," I mean the following:

  • A robust number of enduring, diverse, and collaborating organizations with the collective capacity to move hearts, minds, and imaginations about media policy issues;
  • Sustainable forms of financial support for these organizations' activities;
  • The ability of these organizations to attract and retain high-quality organizational leaders, skilled staff, board members, and volunteers;
  • A diverse number of committed, prominent, and respected spokespersons for the sector; and
  • Public recognition of their achievements, which includes press coverage and even scholarly attention.

As already discussed, media policy work includes attention to a variety of interrelated concerns that include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Decision-making about communications via radio and television broadcasting, cable and satellite TV, telephones, and the Internet;
  • Laws affecting electronic access to content -- copyright, patents, and trademarks -- known as "intellectual property"; and
  • Access to government information laws, and privacy rights.

Some funders have chosen to focus on media content concerns such as media representations of minorities, documentary filmmaking, or protecting children from dangerous online content. Others support efforts that target industry structure and behavior with the aim of reducing media ownership concentration. Still others invest in specific issues such as electronic privacy or focus on improving the professional feeder system for journalists going into industry jobs and their expertise in media policy issues. (One of the largest investors in journalism education is the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In 2007 it made a $2.5 million grant to Yale Law School to start the Knight Law and Media Policy Program.)

In addition, "sector-oriented" funders have identified dynamics within the policy advocacy sector itself to increase its capacity for collective action over the long term. This has required deliberate attention to strategies such as linking grassroots organizations with national advocacy campaigns, investing in leadership development, communications and fundraising training, and even nonprofit management assistance.

Given the increasingly scarce resources available during these uncertain financial times, funders will be looking for sharper focus for their investments in the coming months and years. There is renewed attention to projects addressing the future of journalism. Should funders also be concentrating their limited resources on building and sustaining a system of "independent" content producers and distributors, with the aim of shoring up what is referred to as "public service media"? (One of the most ambitious efforts in this area is Ford’s $50 million investment to strengthen and promote public media.)

GFEM members should congratulate themselves for the contributions they have already made to this dynamic field of policy work. They are pioneers guiding others toward the crucial intersection of technology, politics, economics, and culture. At stake is the well-being and future of the respiratory system for the oxygen of democracy -- with enormous political and economic implications for U.S. society and our increasingly interconnected world.

-- Becky Lentz

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