McAdams On: Good Copps, Bad Copps
June 10, 2011
CONTRARIANVILLE: Here’s the deal, Dr. Copps. Public-interest journalism is diametrically
opposed to profitability, and the buck doesn’t stop with “mega-media
interests.” It stops with every American expecting something for nothing, and quarterly
10 percent growth on their portfolio. I think that covers about all of us.
I appreciate and admire your devotion to the concept of public-interest
journalism. I agree with you that “our country’s media is an issue that goes to
the heart of our democracy.” I’m no less discouraged than you are about the
decline in good old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. I once bemoaned as much
in a bull pen of young Web-content aggregators who looked at me as if I were a
They grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, during the proliferation of cable channels.
Hardcore reporters were replaced by talking heads hired to turn the public
against journalists who exposed political and corporate corruption. That’s not
some kind of “conspiracy” theory. A president was taken down by shoe-leather. As
if successors were going to sit around and let that happen again.
Investigative journalism costs money, takes time, and ticks people off. Imagine
presenting that to your investors as a business model and to your advertisers
as a value proposition: “Well, we’re going to hire very smart people, pay them
well to dig around in powerful people’s affairs, and hopefully come up with an
Because if the story’s not embarrassing or at least violent, it’s not a story. Bleeding
leads because we’re all rubber-neckers. Scandal rules because we feel superior
to powerful people taken down a peg or two.
On that note, I would like to personally thank you and every other veteran
regulator and politician for not posting pictures of yourself in your undies on
the Internet. I personally believe there’s more well-meaning, upstanding,
hard-working folks in the Beltway than are ever given credit, mainly because
the handful of narcissistic, sex-crazed whack jobs there, are--let’s face it--so
much more interesting.
Perhaps your own approach to assessing the state of public-interest media is
similarly skewed. You know, the old glass-half-empty thing.
is a crisis when . . . more than one-third of our commercial broadcasters
offer little to no news whatsoever to their communities of license,” you say in
your response to this week’s report on the state of local media. You use the
report to reinforce the position you’ve held for years--that broadcasters must
be held to specific public-interest standards to qualify for license renewal.
I’m with you in some respects. Certainly, as a citizen, I would like to have
full disclosure that “People In Favor of Human Life” are setting my drinking
water on fire, for example. And certainly the Googleratis there at the
commission can whip up a content management system whereby all stations can
submit and update public-inspection files. You ask what good it would do if the
commission doesn’t use it as a hammer for license renewal.
“Why would consumers bother to plumb the Internet looking at public files if
there is so little confidence their effort will be rewarded with remedial
One word, Brother Copps. “Trolls.” And to be fair, others of us not so obsessed
that we’ll go get thrown off the KCET-TV lot for asking to inspect the file.
What’d that cost ‘em, 10 grand? I’d call that enforcement.
I part company with you on withholding license renewals. If you thumb through
other recent fines for incomplete public-inspection files, you’ll find some
pretty small stations. The very type of stations that in one breath you endorse
in the name of diversity, and deride because they are not doing local news,
most likely because they can’t afford it. How long do you suppose they’ll stay in
business after you yank their license for not covering city hall? Not long, I
And please, just once, when you’re haranguing the broadcast industry for not
being civic-minded enough, consider what Mike Devlin of WFAA-TV in Dallas said
in the report:
“Does the FCC know that WWL-TV stayed on for 16 straight days without a
commercial during Hurricane Katrina?” This is all the while station personnel
were moving operations from one location to another to outrun the flooding.
Consider also that fewer reporters across all TV stations
are doing more news. And that despite a two-year period of the most harsh
economic conditions in the history of the TV business, stations are still
performing investigative journalism. The report you criticized as having “glossed
over” public-interest policy cites a report by KHOU-TV in Houston that led to a
tire recall and possibly saved lives. Others included exposés on airport
safety, government waste, mortgage fraud and prison practices that led to
reforms. Two reporters at a Boise, Idaho station exposed financial corruption
that promoted the resignation of the mayor and his chief of staff.
And it’s not just about dredging, Mr. Commissioner. Broadcasters have raised billions
of dollars for disaster relief and charities. TV stations across the country
run all sorts of public-service campaigns, from discouraging underage drinking,
fighting drug abuse, to providing Christmas gifts for children, raising
awareness about child abuse, and helping elderly people keep the heat on the
contribute time and money to their communities of license.
Please quantify and consider that in your press for codification of
public-interest obligations. Do not cut off the nose to spite the face.