How newspapers and broadcasters are different

The advent of the digital age has put both newspapers and television broadcasters — until not too long ago the arbiters of opinion and taste in America — under pressure. It’s hard for hardcopy newspapers to survive in a craigslist time, and they generally can’t force people to pay for their content online. It’s hard for broadcasters to differentiate their offerings, and so they are starting to release shows online.

But newspapers (unlike broadcasters) seem to get the idea that they’re better off with an open internet than a closed, cell-phone-like internet. I was happy to see the New York Times editorial today on the importance of the Verizon/NARAL issue:

We have long been concerned about the potential threat to free speech and a free press as communications migrate from old-fashioned telephone lines, TV broadcasts and printing presses to digital networks controlled by unregulated private companies. The threat stopped being theoretical recently when Verizon Wireless censored political speech on one of its mobile services. . . . Given this chilling experience, the Federal Communications Commission should quickly issue regulations that also bar interference with text messaging. Unfortunately, the F.C.C. is in the thrall of the carriers, and the Bush administration has an unblemished record of siding with corporations over the rights and safety of American citizens. That means Congress will have to take the lead, as it must on other issues affecting the mushrooming world of digital communications.

What’s great about this editorial is that it takes the long view. It recognizes that this fight isn’t just about “short codes,” but about the future of communications generally. The Times clearly takes the view that communications carriers – even wireless carriers – aren’t like “newspapers.” Newspapers get to choose what they print, and can’t be forced to “carry” any particular speech. Companies providing access to the internet don’t – shouldn’t – get to pick winners and losers in the marketplace of communications.

The editorial also picks up on the current political reality: the FCC simply is not going to do anything that disrupts the carriers’ business plans. Rather than ignore online communications, or say they don’t matter, the newspaper calls for Congressional action to bring our now-ancient communications law (1996!) up to date. This is brave stuff.

It’s something a broadcaster probably wouldn’t say. Sure, they’re under pressure from the internet. So they’d rather avoid it — by finding a way to hook up with cable systems that don’t have common carriage obligations (but can be forced to carry broadcast signals), and fighting any unlicensed uses of white spaces with innumerable lobbyists “red in tooth and claw.” They must want things both ways: special all-American status, so that must carry rules stay in place and we push the country through a digital transition optimized for broadcast, and affiliation with traditionally-proprietary, newspaper-like cable systems that can freely discriminate between transmissions.

Maybe we should put this to a vote. Who would we vote off the communications island? Who has to go? I’m hoping newspapers can stick around (albeit in different, online forms). Broadcasters, on the other hand…

Comments

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