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‘First, Do No Harm’: A Plea to the FTC

In May, the FTC launched a trial balloon calling for the "reinvention of journalism." Whether it's a "journalism AmeriCorps" or a Ministry of Truth, it's a bad idea.

by
Dan Miller

Bio

June 22, 2010 - 12:12 am

On May 24, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) (not to be confused with the Federal Communications Commission, which is also trying to help in a crisis not to be wasted) released a document titled “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism.”

It must, in the minds of some folks, be time for our masters to push the reset button. The FTC document notes that “this draft does not represent conclusions or recommendations by the Commission or FTC staff; it is solely for purposes of discussion.” On June 4, the FTC further clarified that the earlier discussion draft had not actually endorsed any proposal.

That’s nice.

Maybe it’s just a gas bag trial balloon. On June 11, the FTC posted a charming Fathers’ Day tribute titled DADvice: Stuff Dads Really Say; presumably that didn’t stake out a firm position either. I wouldn’t worry too much; there’s lots of more important stuff happening and most if not all of the proposals under consideration by the FTC would require congressional action to modify copyright laws and the Internal Revenue Code.

The proposal is directed at sustaining historically useful but decreasingly viable means of one-way communication of news and other stuff to the public. Newspapers are dying. A comparison to the industry earlier devoted to horse drawn carriages is apt. To have attempted to keep the “carriage trade” alive by requiring automobile manufacturers and the public in general to subsidize it, directly or indirectly, would have been foolish; now, a “Drudge Tax” is envisioned, sort of like an automobile tax to support buggy whip manufacturers, I guess.

Rather confusingly, the document notes:

Studies have shown that newspapers typically provide the largest quantity of original news to consumers over any given period of time. We include within the term “newspapers” online news websites run either by an existing newspaper or by an online-only news organization. Other sources of news are also important, of course, and proposals for action should not favor newspapers over other news platforms. (emphasis added)

The document then proceeds to explore multiple ways to favor “newspapers” over other news platforms.

In various contexts, however, it seems as though the term “newspaper” is used to refer exclusively to the printed things in which we wrap fish and with which we house train pups. For example, the document notes that “the trend toward online, rather than print, advertising is very likely to continue over time, forcing newspapers to look for other sources of revenue.” Should they cease to exist, we will have to find other things in which to wrap fish and with which to house train pups; the Internet does not work.

I must confess that I have not seen, much less read, a printed-on-paper English language newspaper for years; here in our remote, rural area of Panamá they are not generally available. I do occasionally skim two Spanish language newspapers, but not often. Mainly, I buy them when painting a wall. They keep paint from falling on the floor.

It’s far easier to find stuff on the Internet, whether via newspaper websites or other websites. Non-English websites are easily if not perfectly translated into English almost instantaneously; that makes the available information sources far more diverse than the New York Times or even the West Dry Gulch Gazette.

“Instantaneously” is an important word; the Internet is instantaneous, and printed newspapers are not. I can e-mail a friend far away in eastern Europe and he gets my message immediately — about as fast as the speed of light. The morning editions of newspapers are put to bed late the night before.

Really current stuff? Forget it. The search engines and the various aggregators make access to current information extraordinarily fast and easy. Often, when I go to a link found at one site, I click on provided links and get more information about stuff in which I am interested. There is no need to page through multiple advertisements and articles about the latest celebrity escapade in which I have no interest whatever —  that stuff is available in glorious abundance on the Internet as well, but I don’t have to leaf through it to find something in which I might be interested. Nor does the Internet create tons of wastepaper, for which many trees had to be sacrificed. Where are the tree huggers in this mess?

Among the various proposals put forward by the FTC:

Establish a “journalism” division of AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps is the federal program that places young people with nonprofits to get training and do public service work. According to its proponents, this would help to ensure that young people who love journalism will stay in the field. “It strikes us as a win-win; we get more journalists covering our communities, and young journalists have a chance to gain valuable experience – even at a time when the small dailies where they might have started are laying reporters off.”(footnotes omitted)

Allow content developed for international broadcasting to be used domestically. Almost $700 million of taxpayers’ money is spent on content generated for use by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for international dissemination. This news would be valuable to U.S. citizens as well. A 60-year old law, however, prohibits the rebroadcast of this government-funded international news to U.S. consumers and taxpayers.

In April 2009, President Obama signed a law to increase the size of the Clinton-era AmeriCorps to 250,000 enrollees from 75,000 “gradually.” It is, as we all know, a strictly neutral entity which has no interest in promoting governmental propaganda information or any ideological agenda; and, of course, it is always on the side of the angels. Perhaps it can fill the great need for a Department of Information, but with a disclaimer to the effect that “this information is provided by the United States government at taxpayer expense. Fair and balanced, no Faux News and that’s the truth. Enjoy!”

Voice of America is “the official external radio and television service of the United States federal government.” It is a neat way to spread information and, just maybe, a wee bit of propaganda, abroad. Sometimes, it is unclear whose side VOA is on. Still, it might be useful to have VOA broadcasts available to folks in the United States; we are paying for it and knowing what our tax money is promoting would be useful. Perhaps its broadcasts could be live-streamed over the Internet and archived so that we might access them at leisure.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty may also be useful in disseminating information about the United States; I haven’t heard them, and they do seem to have irritated some repressive states. It might also be useful were their broadcasts made available in the United States, so that we could find out what they are up to. But as sources of accurate news for people in the United States, I doubt it.

Strangely, the American Forces Network is missing from the FTC list. It is available via shortwave radio, and back on September 11, 2001, when a man-made disaster struck New York City and elsewhere, I was able to watch on a local Venezuelan television station (in Spanish) and get coordinated audio in English via an American Forces Network shortwave broadcast. Of course, its audience consists principally of baby killers, uniformed assassins, and other miscreants, so the omission may be reasonable, at least until the military is reformed and becomes adequately politically correct.

We need a truly free press, and taxing Internet news providers — and the rest of us — for a government sponsored “free” press is hardly a step in the right direction. The FTC and the FCC should stick to their legislatively mandated functions, even though this may limit the promotion opportunities for some GS-15 civil “servants” to GS-16 and higher grades. Of course, we need more of them and they need the money even though the rest of America may be suffering from a recession, but it’s boom time for federal employees. On average, federal employees are paid $71,206 per year compared to $40,331 for private sector workers. (When you include benefits such as health care and retirement, federal employees make almost double what private sector employees receive: $119,982 versus $59,909.)

There are plenty of other things for them to get involved in where they can do less damage than mucking about with the provision of news and information. Here is one possibility: a government-wide study, with lots of committees, planning groups, and consultants, to develop a new governmental oath of office based on the Hippocratic oath to replace the hypocrisy oath now commonly relied upon. True, the Hippocratic oath doesn’t actually say “first do no harm,” but it comes pretty close and could be a good starting point.

Such a study could easily resemble the mating of elements in the first two of these three respects: lots of noise, accomplished at a high level, with results many months later; only the third is dubious, and that is comforting.

Dan Miller graduated from Yale University in 1963 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1966. He retired from the practice of law in Washington, D.C., in 1996 and has lived in a rural area in Panama since 2002.
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