Critique of Steve Coll's Washington Post commentary on broadcast policy and public media

Cited Article

Steve Coll, Fox News should fund NPR, Washington Post, October 31, 2010. Coll is the president of the New America Foundation and former managing editor of the Washington Post.  (Disclosure: I was a senior research fellow and research director at the New America Foundation prior to Coll’s being appointed president and have criticized the Foundation’s undisclosed conflicts between its scholarly, journalistic, and advocacy activities).

My Comment

In his commentary, Steve Coll retreads some tired old ideas in communications policy and advocacy.  Not that there is anything wrong with the ideas per se (indeed, I consider Coll’s goals laudable), but when you’re apparently clueless about history, you’re doomed to repeat it.   Since at least the mid 1980s a host of scholars, advocates, and even policymakers have been making virtually identical arguments to Coll’s.  One reason they haven’t succeeded is, of course, the legendary political power of the broadcast industry.  Rather than being blushing maidens when it comes to hardball lobbying, TV broadcasters have long excelled at it, although out of the public eye (see my “Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick: How Local TV Broadcasters Exert Political Power”).

One of the reasons for the failure is that decades ago NPR and other public broadcasters decided that the commercial broadcasters were too powerful to ever allow the type of trade Coll proposals.  Operating on the practical principles that “if you cannot fight them, join them” and that” there is more to be gained by cooperating than fighting” with the commercial broadcasters, NPR has been a champion of the very farce that Coll laments.  At virtually every opportunity to bring more accountability to the use of public airwaves by commercial broadcasters, NPR has either vigorously supported the broadcasters or stood on the sidelines, counting on victory while letting the commercial broadcasters play badboy.  In return, NPR got a huge increase in its spectrum rights (doubling their access to spectrum in just the last ten years, as part of the radio industry’s transition to digital radio) and buying off a potentially powerful foe, who would be able to retaliate effectively if NPR vigorously lobbied for Coll’s recommendations.

NPR provides an outstanding news product, but, as Coll notes, not in the very narrow realm where its corporate bottom line is most effected by public policy: the FCC’s policies regarding its use of the public airwaves.  In his own field of foreign affairs reporting, Coll is a great writer with equally impressive credentials.  But in this subject area, he and some of his colleagues at New America have focused too much on popularization.  There is an important role for skilled popularization (which some folks call plagiarism, when the work is accompanied by a claim of originality), but in this case, even by the standards of a popularizer, Coll hasn’t done his homework.  Given that taxpayers have contributed millions of dollars to Coll’s foundation for work on communications (the taxpayer subsidies come indirectly, via tax breaks to wealthy individuals who give money to foundations who then give money to Coll’s foundation), it’s sad that this is what we got for our money.  Perhaps Coll could do more good by offering to give some of his foundation’s taxpayer subsidies to NPR.   (Disclaimer: none of the above should imply that much of the work done at Coll’s foundation isn’t first rate, especially as journalism and advocacy).

–J.H. Snider

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