how we abandoned the idea that media should serve the public interest
Yesterday the New Republic wrote about how little attention has been paid to policy in the current election. In 2008, the network news programs devoted 220 minutes to policy; this year, it’s been a mere 32 minutes.
The piece goes on to bemoan the decline of the public-interest obligation once held by broadcasters (and which still remains, in vestigial form) in exchange for their use of the airwaves, and to connect the dots between the gradual removal of those restrictions and the toxic media environment we find ourselves in today. While — I think appropriately — the article doesn’t overemphasize the causal effects, it does highlight a broader shift that was going on in the 1970s and is still echoing today.
The 1970s saw a wide, bipartisan embrace of the deregulatory spirit in many areas. The transportation industries — air, rail, trucking — were one chief target. Banking was in there. So was energy. More controversial, and less bipartisan, was the push for the removal of new social regulations—rules meant improve the environment, health, and safety. But even when it came to social regulation, both sides believed in regulatory reform. (I’ve recently written about some of this history.)
Economists were one group that made a strong case for economic deregulation — the removal of price and entry barriers in industries like transportation, energy, and finance. (For the definitive account, see Martha Derthick and Paul Quirk’s 1985 book.) Their role in airline deregulation, led by the colorful Alfred “To me, they’re all just marginal costs with wings” Kahn, is probably best known. But economists also had something to say about the Federal Communications Commission.
Perhaps the most famous — certainly one of the earliest — critics of the FCC was Ronald Coase. Coase argued in 1959 that there was no good reason, technical or economic, for the government to own the airwaves, and made the case for auctioning off the radio spectrum. He was not at all impressed with the argument that licenses should be distributed according to the “public interest”, and emphasized not only the legal ambiguity of that standard, but the fact that the FCC’s decisions reflected “a degree of inconsistency which defies generalization.”
At the time, the idea of the airwaves as a public trust was so universally accepted that Coase’s views seemed quite radical, even to other economists. When, in 1962, he extended his argument into a 200-page RAND report, coauthored with Bill Meckling and Jora Mirasian, RAND quashed it for being too incendiary. Later, recalling these events, Coase quoted an internal review of the paper: “I know of no country on the face of the globe—except for a few corrupt Latin American dictatorships—where the ‘sale’ of the spectrum could even be seriously proposed.”
By the early 1970s, though, a new consensus had emerged in economics around questions of regulation, and this consensus saw FCC demands that broadcasters behave in unprofitable ways not as acting in the “public interest,” but as a source of efficiency losses that should, at a minimum, be regarded skeptically. This aligned with increasingly loud arguments from outside of economics (as well as within) about regulatory capture, which implied that the “public interest” pursued by executive agencies would never be more than a sham, anyhow.
Eventually, this shift in mood led to a change in how the FCC regulated broadcasters. The public interest standard was loosened, and in 1981 the agency began to shift from using hearings to allocate spectrum licenses — in theory to the applicants that best served the public interest — to lottery. In 1994, it moved another step closer to Coase’s prescription, beginning to auction off the licenses — a move that stimulated a great deal of research in auction theory as well as generating substantial revenue.
The “public interest” goal, which had initially been baked into the allocation process (however poorly it was pursued in practice) became increasingly marginalized. Or perhaps it was subsumed within the assumed public interest in encouraging efficient use of the spectrum. The process echoes the one that took place in antitrust policy, in which historically significant goals other than allocative efficiency — goals that often conflicted with efficiency and even with each other — were gradually defined as being simply beyond the scope of what could be considered. (Indeed, Coase’s criticism of the inconsistency of the FCC’s behavior sounds quite similar to Justice Stewart’s scathing critique of merger law, written around the same time: “the sole consistency I can find is that under Section 7 [the merger section of the Clayton Act], the Government always wins.”)
I don’t know enough about the history of the FCC to have an informed opinion on whether the public interest standard as it stood circa 1970 was redeemable or if the agency was irreparably captured. And I definitely don’t think the decline of that standard is the main explanation for the current media environment, which goes far beyond television.
But I do think that the demise of the idea that we should expect media to have obligations beyond profit — which is bound up with the ideal, if not the practice, of the public interest standard — is a big contributor. Individual journalists — that increasingly rare breed — may remain professionally committed to an ethical code and a sense of mission that isn’t primarily about sales. But at the corporate level, any such qualms were abandoned long ago, and the journalistic wall between “church and state” — editorial and advertising — continues to crumble.
What this means is that we get political news that is just horse race coverage, and endless examination of the ugliest aspects of politics — which, unsurprisingly, encourages more of the same. Actually expecting media to pursue the “public interest”, whether through regulatory means or professional commitment, may be unrealistically idealistic. But giving up on the concept entirely seems certain to take us further down the path in which objective lies merit just as much attention as truth.