Josh Silver: Journalism and Internet Policies Must Be Linked

Contact Info: 
Moira Vahey, Free Press, (202) 265-1490 x31

Remarks by Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, at the Free Press Summit: Changing Media in Washington, D.C.

Good morning, and welcome to the Free Press Summit: Changing Media. I’m Josh Silver. I want to thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to join us today for a different kind of Washington gathering. We have an impressive roster of speakers, and a groundbreaking report on Internet policy, journalism and public media. But this is not just another DC event with a couple of talks and panels. It’s an opportunity to engage a broad set of stakeholders to make changes on the most important issues facing communications policy.

At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last week, President Obama spoke about the crisis in journalism and the danger of a society without quality news and information. He said: “A government without newspapers, a government without a tough and vibrant media of all sorts is not an option for the United States of America.” The president quoted from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson: "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter." But the president did not quote Jefferson’s next line: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers, and be capable of reading them.”

Jefferson understood that freedom of the press and robust journalism also require policies that ensure information reaches everyone and that everyone is able to engage. They are two sides of the same coin. In the eighteenth century, that meant both public subsidies for printers and a government-run postal system that subsidized newspaper delivery. In the twenty-first century, it means connecting policies that support journalism with policies that support universal, affordable access to the Internet. These are the two pillars of media and democracy – quality journalism and universal access to the marketplace of ideas.

But in modern Washington, questions of media and those of infrastructure are treated separately. They operate in their own silos of law, policy and advocacy. This separation must end. It is not enough to have either a robust market for news and information or universal, affordable access to the Internet. We need a strong market for journalism and freedom of the press. And we need to ensure that information reaches all corners of the country and that everyone is able to engage. We can and must have both.

Our president gets it. His comments on journalism were spot on, and he has a progressive Internet agenda. Our purpose here is to put those issues together, and to understand that they are not just abstract policy questions. They matter. They matter for the quality of life for millions of Americans. That, after all, is why we’re really here.

We’re here because 20,000 journalists have lost their jobs in the past 18 months. Without decisive, strategic action, we face the real possibility that the Fourth Estate will crumble and it won’t be possible to make a decent living as a journalist. If we fail to act, we will lose the few remaining reporters covering state houses and city halls, hard-working journalists who are acting as our eyes and ears in the halls of power, holding government and corporations accountable. Yes, there are promising new media enterprises, but in the short term, the transition from old media to new could leave us short on journalists, and short of what we need as a democracy. Even if websites and blogs were ready to replace newspapers – what about the forty percent of Americans who still don’t have high-speed Internet access?

Don’t get me wrong, we are not here to protect the status quo. We have witnessed devastating failures by the press. Even the best newsrooms missed the biggest stories of our generation – WMDs in Iraq and the impending financial collapse. Television news has become a circus of flashy graphics, superficial soundbytes, blustering pundits, celebrities and crime. Radio has been reduced to homogenized playlists and bellowing ideologues. The entire dial is empty of local news in many communities.

Our daily newspapers are struggling to deal with plummeting ad revenues as readers switch to the Internet. But their most severe problems were caused not just by Craigslist, but by ill-advised mergers that brought impossible debts. Our job here today is to not simply protect what we still have. It is to create a system that is better than before, where new forms of journalism can flourish, reporters can make a living, and the best elements of institutional newsrooms are preserved.

And we’re here today because of those forty percent of American homes that don’t have broadband. It’s not just a statistic: It is millions of hard-working families aspiring for a better life. It’s rural households that can’t buy Internet access at any price. It’s urban neighborhoods where service exists, but most people can’t afford it, or they don’t even own computers. We’re here because Internet access has become essential for social mobility – for realizing the American dream. We’re here because failed policies played a big part in creating these problems, and we must play a big part in solving them.

Finally, we’re here today because we are the wealthiest nation on the planet with one of the poorest public media systems in the developed world. Other countries enjoy robust public media that supplement commercial media with much-needed local, educational, cultural, and public affairs programming. It’s remarkable how much our public broadcasters do with so little. But the crisis facing newsrooms and the ongoing failures of commercial media make it all the more essential that America reinvest in public media. But more resources must come with more independence from politics. We need stronger checks and balances to prevent political meddling. We must foster more diverse content, and expand the definition of what and who constitute public media.

It is not an overstatement when I say that the analysis and recommendations in this book are central to the future of our economy and the viability of our democracy. If we do not ensure that Internet is fast, open, affordable and available to everyone, we will continue to fall behind the rest of the world. If we do not ensure that we have a reliable watchdog looking out for us in the halls of power and abroad, our democracy will not function. These are the two pillars of democracy – the same today as they were for Thomas Jefferson.

Many lobbyists, their PR firms and paid industry experts will continue to invoke hollow talking points to protect the broken status quo. They’ll argue that policymaking in the public interest is a government intrusion. They will say that our policies will cause their financial ruin. And when all else fails, they will call our proposals solutions searching for a problem. But we’ve heard it all before, and we’re ready to move beyond these tired debates.

What we propose today is a new direction. A fair regulatory approach that protects consumers, promotes competition, and allows the companies with the best ideas and products to make money. A combination of public policy and market forces will achieve these outcomes. It is not an either-or proposition. Companies can make profits and the public interest can be served simultaneously.

But to move forward, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes. We must scrap the failed policies and programs of the past and embrace new solutions. The economic crisis has – once and for all - put an end to the free market myth that government has no role in protecting and promoting society’s information needs.

Access to diverse, independent, skeptical media is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of our democracy. But for too many years, media and technology debates have been brokered amongst industry lobbyists, and the public has been left out in the cold. Those days are over, and from here forward, it is the voices and the interests of the American people that come first.

We are a nation with strong free speech protections and a long history of policymaking in support of a diverse and wide-ranging marketplace of ideas. Today represents the next chapter in that history; this book is part of that history, and today we will write it together.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good