Techies stand up for old media rules

FCC holds workshop in Silicon Valley

Friday, May 21, 2010

Palo Alto, CA -- At a Stanford University workshop on digital innovations in broadcast, Internet experts were the unlikely defenders of traditional media’s continued relevance. Debunking arguments for deregulation from “old media” representatives, the “new media” advocates said ownership limits are still needed in a digital era.

The youngest (and arguably hippest) panelists at Friday’s FCC workshop were Tim Westergren, founder of the popular Pandora Radio site, and Tiffiniy Ying Chen, co-founder of the open source video project Participatory Culture Foundation. Both Internet entrepreneurs had a different take on digital innovation than the broadcast and newspaper CEOs on the panel.

Chen said that profit-driven corporations are choking the potential of more democratic models for content distribution. While LA Times CEO Eddy Hartenstein and other big media execs asked the FCC to permit more consolidation of their already debt-saddled industries, Chen and Westergren said that the government must ensure a competitive marketplace for new models to thrive online.

“I come here as an enormous champion of government regulation,” said Westergren.

During the public comment session, Peter Broadwell, the director of operations at a small Silicon Valley search engine, offered an insider view of Internet news and its limitations. Big media companies have long claimed that ownership limits are irrelevant in a digital era that allows a proliferation of voices and viewpoints online.

“I want to sort out the myth that the Internet is going to give us vast new sources of information,” said Broadwell, who described how search engines remove volumes of identical content from search results.

Broadwell’s experience fits with research from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, which found that only 14% of online news sites offer original reporting. The Pew report also found that the most trafficked news sites are those linked to newspapers and other traditional sources, so offline media concentration limits the diversity of the online news that most people access.

“Do we need more platforms and less news, or do we need more news?” asked Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of the Media Alliance.

Blogger Alan Mutter, author of Reflections of a Newsosaur, also argued that the FCC must ask to protect traditional news from disappearing.

“I’ve seen nothing yet to convince me that crowd source websites possibly can fill the void that will be lost by professional journalism,” said Mutter. “We’ll never be at a loss for places to publish pictures of our vacation or our cats waterskiing. The problem is that we don’t have professionally reported journalism.”

The proposed Comcast/NBC merger was another hot topic at the workshop, with several participants calling for FCC hearings on the merger. The Raging Grannies, a feisty costumed activist group, voiced their opposition to the merger in song.

“A Comcast takeover of NBC would create a media Goliath that would have the market power to control what we as consumers see, and how much we as consumers pay, to see it on all our medial outlets -- television, cable, and online,” said James Joyce, president of the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians.

The workshop was part of the FCC’s 2010 review of its media ownership rules. During the two public comment sessions, all those who addressed media ownership opposed a relaxation of the rules. Other speakers stood up for net neutrality, low power FM radio, and public access television.

The Prometheus Radio Project ( is a Philadelphia-based organization that advocates for a more democratic media and builds low power radio as a tool for social movement organizing and community expression.