In a speech to The Media Institute in Washington on the future of journalism, FCC commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker conceded that like many other industries, journalism is at a crossroads. But she said she disagreed that government needed to step in to fund the business.
"I oppose the proposition that at the first sign of a challenge the government should step in and fix it," she said. "Our nation has flourished for over 200 years with a strong independent press as a check on government abuse. This tradition should not be discarded so easily. "
Baker said tomorrow's journalist won't be a "a man with a fedora and a typewriter," but that the core attributes should remain" objective, fact-based reporting that uncovers the truth about power and powerful interests, private and public.
Among those core values are independence from government, she suggested. Citing a proposal by former Washington Post editor Len Downie for a national local news fund administered by grant-making bodies, she said no thanks. "However well-intentioned and well-crafted, I vote no on this public option. Direct government funding of journalism is the wrong answer," she said.
Baker said it was dangerous for industry to start looking to Washington to resolve "fundamental challenges to their business," adding that "bailing out" journalism could hamper commercial efforts by journalists to help themselves.
And lost in the discussion, she said, is the First Amendment. Pointing to government postal subsidies in the early days of the country, as some proponents of the public option have done, does not justify government intervention, she said. "We must be wary of any attempts to let the government foxes into the henhouses of the press."
But Baker did not foreclose any role for government. For instance, she said, it was worth the FCC considering as it reviews ownership rules, whether it would be helpful for newspapers to take advantage of other digital platforms in a market. She stopped short of endorsing an end to the ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership, but she did say: "I am hopeful we will address the concerns of parties that our current rules - based on a far different media landscape - inhibit innovative and new forms of journalism and newsgathering."
Another element of what she said could be the government's "modest role" in helping the media is protecting content. "As journalists experiment with how best to seek compensation online, media companies will need the tools necessary to protect against piracy and enforce their copyright. I am hopeful that any Open Internet rules adopted by the Commission deal directly with measures to curb illegal content online," she said.
Baker also gave a shout-out to broadband adoption, pointing out that new online media models need connected customers, and to more government transparency.
Baker's comments came the same day the FCC launched an initiative examining the future of the media, including the traditional delivery of news and civic information.