Robert Knight

When I was a reporter years ago in Ocean City, Maryland, I learned the hard way that freedom of the press can be expensive.

In the dark days of winter, ad revenue was scarce. Both weekly papers lived to a great extent off the city’s legal ads. Our editorials regularly chided Mayor Harry Kelley, while our competitor paper remained mayor-friendly. So when Kelley got teed off, he yanked our legal ads but not theirs. I can still recall racing with our staff to the local bank before paychecks started bouncing.

Today, the “legacy” media –newspapers, magazines and broadcasters – face more than ornery public officials. The Internet is wreaking havoc with traditional funding streams while opening countless opportunities for more voices, citizen journalism and the end of the Big Three TV networks’ dominance. The latter actually began with the debut of CNN in 1980, and Fox News Channel in 1996, but the Internet and talk radio have speeded the decline of ABC, CBS and NBC as well as scores of newspapers and magazines.

With 13,400 journalists laid off in the last four years, reporting has become a mile wide and an inch deep. There are more sources and stories than ever, but fewer in-depth pieces except for interminable, public interest thumb-suckers that editors like in order to win Pulitzers.

The winnowing out presents major problems, including less scrutiny of the ever-growing government. Still, the “legacy” media anchor the whole information network, since even bloggers have to quote reliable sources to be credible. But everything is changing with lightening speed.

The media are in such a flux that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a 465-page report on June 9 that tries to figure out what, if anything, the government should do about it.

The good news is that “The Changing Media Landscape” rejects a return to the radio-stifling Fairness Doctrine, and also FCC Commissioner Michael Copps’ dangerous idea to create a public-values test for broadcaster license renewals.

The FCC report frequently warns against government entanglement, and cites advances by the new media, including “legacy media” Websites. Also, nonprofits now do a lot of original reporting, and bloggers analyze government reports. Instant videos are possible from millions of cell phone users.

Robert Knight

Robert Knight is an author, senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union and a frequent contributor to Townhall.