The federal government is preparing an inquiry into the endangered field of news and reporting — and Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz is dropping some broad hints about what will be in it.
In an exclusive interview with TheWrap, Leibowitz expressed some sympathy to easing antitrust enforcement of media consolidations to prevent more newspapers from folding or further declines in TV news staffs.
He also said the FTC intends not just throw out a lifeline. He wants to ensure that media companies are doing a good enough job finding alternative revenues.
Some media critics contend that at least part of the current woes affecting journalism reflect heavy-handed cutbacks and management failures to pitch new readers or charge for websites.
Currently anti-trust laws forbid a single company in a city buying the local daily newspaper, local TV stations and the local cable provider and then using that monopoly to set high ad rates. However, some broadcasters and newspaper companies are arguing that only the administrative efficiencies gained through joint ownership can preserve news coverage.
“We are strong believers in the antitrust laws and in opposing exemptions from the antitrust laws,” Leibowitz told TheWrap, “but when you think about other values, and you think about the First Amendment, this might be one of those rare industries where you must think about ways to ensure the vibrancy of news.”
People in a democracy, he said, “need to be informed, and sources of news are enormously important. I think as we all know, [those sources] are incredibly embattled.”
He said, however, that the FTC examination will be “much, much broader” than simply whether an antitrust exemption is needed. The agency will look into other reasons for the current problems.
“We are going to have economists and journalists and bloggers and people from different parts of the news media, and we are going to think through [what is occurring] and what the future will look like and whether that future — which might be a handful of newspapers and [TV] networks that don’t have nearly as much reach as they once did and 5 million bloggers — is a good thing for American democracy,” he said.
The FTC first announced plans to do a study of “Can News Survive the Internet age” in May, but Leibowitz’s comments to TheWrap are the most extensive yet on the details. He said the original plan for a September workshop had been replaced with one for a series of sessions, starting in December.
Leibowitz said the FTC’s focus is to develop a deep understanding of what is taking place and then make recommendations to policy makers.
“We are going to invite a lot of smart people on different sides of this issue to educate us,” he said. “This is a really important public policy issue, and we think we can add, as we have in a lot of other areas, an objective voice that can point industry or lawmakers in the right direction.”
Leibowitz cautioned, however, that the agency is unlikely to come up with quick fixes.
“I don’t think we are anywhere near recommending changes in the law. We certainly can’t effectuate them ourselves,” he said. “What we are trying to do is look at this issue and quantify the nature of the problem and to help policy makers think through what if anything they may do going forward.