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Former FCC Lawyer Mark Lloyd On Agency's Post-Genachowski 'Tipping Point'

Paresh Dave |
April 11, 2013 | 1:29 a.m. PDT

Executive Director

The FCC has control over nearly aspect of technology and media, from cell phones to television to the Internet. The agency's five commissioners in the coming months could make decisions that make high-speed Internet accessible in more ways, allow Rupert Murdoch to buy the Los Angeles Times and even allow brief nudity on television. Adding to the drama, the commission's chairman is quitting. That gives President Barack Obama the chance to appoint a new chairman and have a fresh say in the agency's decision-making.

One of the groups weighing in is the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank focusing on 21st century problems. Mark Lloyd, director of the the foundation's Media Policy Initiative, was an FCC lawyer until last fall.

In a press release shortly after FCC chairman Julius Genachowski stepped down, Lloyd said that the FCC is at "an important tipping point" because the FCC's next leader would decide "whether consolidation continues or whether all Americans will have the opportunity to participate in a dynamic, open, and affordable digital age.”   

Before the announcement, Lloyd spoke to Neon Tommy about the challenges that lay ahead for the FCC.

Neon Tommy:
You've mentioned that one your FCC duties was to figure out how distinct communities use technology in different ways. Is the FCC up to par with changing technology?

Mark Lloyd: Our policies haven't kept up with it. Right now, both because of historical reasons and because of set frames of mind, we have a media bureau at the FCC with different offices for radio, television and cable. We have a wireline bureau. We have a wireless bureau. We have these separate bureaus of things, and that doesn't really recognize the interrelationship of all these media.

A lot of the expertise and even the teaching tends to focus on the notion that some services are based on wireless communications, but other services are broadcasting or broadband. A lot of these distinctions have fallen away. Is Internet Protocol television broadcasting or is that a wireless communication service when you're watching television over an iPad or an iPhone?

Has that led to any problems?

We do not fully understand the importance of cross-ownership rules. What does it mean when a local television or radio operation is owned by the local newspaper operation? What happens when those are the three operations that are providing the most relied upon news on the web. Do you essentially have the same content on three different sources? We have no idea about the impact of that.

There's sort of a general understanding that media is merging and that almost all of these different forms of media cross different platforms. It's all regulated in silos and sometimes things fall through cracks. We have to find a more sophisticated way to think of these things.

How have your views on cross ownership changed over the last two decades?

My focus is less on ownership and more on accountability. If you have no accountability to the local communities you're licensed to serve, just the fact that there's no cross ownership, doesn't mean the local community has a voice.

When I say accountability, I mean mechanisms that require broadcasters to go into local communities and ask them what are the important issues. There was a whole regime -- that no longer exists -- put in place in response to a successful suit by the civil rights community against the FCC. It held that the local public actually has some standing in determining whether a local station could keep a license.

Out of that came the ascertainment process, requiring local broadcasters to go into local communities to talk to leaders of a wide variety of institutions and groups and ask them what were the important issues facing the community.

That process did two things: It informed the work of the local station -- and created a wide range of Sunday morning programs and PSAs-- and it empowered the local community. They understood that the local broadcast operation was responsible to serve them.

If they didn't see the issues they brought up on the air, they came knocking on your door. I told you, 'We should be talking about battered women, but I don't see a program about this. Why not?'

People were challenging licenses, so local stations hired people like me to make sure their license was protected and wasn't going to be challenged.

Do you want to bring that back?

There might be a variety of solutions. One might be strengthening public broadcasting. But some sense of creating local media that's competitive and that's accountable. Maybe that's a requirement that should only pertain to public broadcasters.

If commercial broadcasters are not going to do it, maybe they should pay a fee for their license and have that license fee support public media who would be accountable. Have local broadcasters put on hard-hitting stories for the entire family, not just the toddlers. That might actually change some things. That might demonstrate to commercial broadcasters that there's money to be made in serving local communities.

Can the FCC solve the problem of information silos and self-selection when it comes to media?

Some of the stuff, I'm not sure the FCC plays an appropriate role. It might be able to advance the understanding of how we even think of media by breaking out of silos they're in. But some of this is beyond the purview.

One of things that was put in place that hasn't been especially effective is public broadcasting. Morning Edition, All Things Considered have done a great job. Some stations like that in Washington have done a great job. But that's not necessarily true around the country. Public broadcasting needs much, much more support from taxpayers.

We need stronger democratic mechanisms so public broadcasters are more accountable, showing they are using those resources to provide for the local communities in news and entertainment. That would make a tremendous difference.

One of things I think is very interesting is places like NPR have a very strong conservative audience. There are folks who might believe they will get information with somewhat of a liberal tint but they do believe by and large, it is a fair and responsible service.

Public broadcasting, I think, can strive for what the best journalists strive -- objective, non-biased, truly fair and balanced reporting. Not only about crime and the misdeeds of celebrity, but what's happening in local governments and big corporations without being concerned about funds or advertising dollars being cut. We don't have anything close to that. We can see examples like that in the BBC. But it's not here.

We have more news, but less original reporting. What we get on the Internet will be influenced by our policies.

What will you be working on at the New America Foundation?

We're trying to do better research on the impact of interrelationship of media on serving diverse communities. We're looking at how shifting technology changed the way 2012 election was covered and what lessons can we learn and what changes can we put in place for 2016.

We're looking at the the impact of fact-checking on political discourse. Are candidates more careful because they know someone's fact-checking them?

We're also examining interactive polls and comments. Does that help people think more deeply about the issues being brought up?

Why did you leave the FCC?

This opportunity opened up. It gives me freedom to speak in my voice.

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