Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski said the commission will be an "active partner" in supporting public media as one response to a crisis in journalism, before noting that "this agency cannot and should not dictate programming."
Saying that whatever the FCC does, it must be "in the full spirit of the First Amendment," Genachowski added that "nothing should ever be done to hobble the independence of the press."
That came in opening remarks from the chairman at a day-long workshop on the future of "Public and Other Noncommercial Media in the Digital Era," the commission's second workshop in its ongoing review of the future of media. The first workshop focused on commercial media.
Genachowski said several seismic shifts were occurring simultaneously, prompting profound change in both noncommercial and commercial media.
He said those changes have disrupted models of journalism and threatened to create a crisis for democracy. He also said it was not about preserving the journalistic industry or journalist's paychecks, but about the citizen's access to local news and information.
The broadband plan proposes creating a media trust fund powered by what the chairman said would be "voluntary spectrum auctions."
He said he was pleased to see noncoms working together. "Keep it up," he said. "This is a big moment, and the nation is depending on you to rise to it."
Commissioner Michael Copps called it a great day, with as impressive a group as had ever been assembled at the FCC -- it included the heads of CBP and PBS.
Copps said there were two problems: the "very immediate" challenge facing traditional media "on life support, where there is still life." The second, he said, was the future of online media. But he said they were actually one challenge: "Making sure that we have the information infrastructure that provides citizens what they need to know so they can make intelligent decisions about their future."
He called public media the jewel of American broadcasting, and said it was amazing what they did with the "poverty" of funding for the system.
CPB Chair Ernest Wilson, one of the panelists at the workshop, said noncom broadcasting needs to morph into public service media that uses new technological tools and platforms.
But he said tools are not enough. They also need the wisdom to use it wisely, and the courage to provide public interest information. But that will mean discarding old practices and institutions.
He said that if noncoms continue to do this, democracy will be strengthened. "We are not yet fully a public service media," he said, but he also said they were beyond, and better, than simply public "broadcasting." We have to do digital, dialog and diversity, he said, and to do that will need a fourth D: dollars.
Genachowski's reassurance that the FCC was not out to dictate content was a response to critics of the future of media inquiry who fear that government support will morph into government influence.
For example, Randolph May, president of think tank Free State Foundation, another panelist, planned to tell the FCC that it should be looking for an exit strategy for public media, rather that contemplate expanding its role.
"I am opposed to expansion of funding for public broadcasting, or for 'repurposing' government funds to support other public media, such as websites," he said, according to his prepared testimony. "Indeed, given the unprecedented national debt (almost $13 trillion) and competing budgetary demands facing the country, maybe this is a moment in time when reasonable people can agree that, in light of the media marketplace changes, an 'exit strategy' should be set for reducing or eliminating funding of public media."