Life On The Cliff

Life on the Cliff

We begin the new year with a public totally turned off by Capitol Hill’s embarrassing holiday antics over the fiscal cliff. Sadder still, more cliffs are on the way. It is difficult to see how Congress will find time for anything other than debt limit extensions, budget sequesters, continuing resolutions, government shut-downs and other assorted near-death experiences in the year ahead. We could be free-falling off cliffs all year long! It’s actually worse than being on a roller-coaster, because a roller-coaster goes up as well as down.

Isn’t the year following a national election supposed to be open, at least for six months or so, to something approaching cooperative work and tackling tough problems that no one is willing to take on during campaign season? Shouldn’t we be discussing wide-ranging proposals to tackle the many challenges that beset America instead of marking do-or-die cliff dates on our political calendars? And I bet they’ll probably find a few additional cliffs for us to fall off that we don’t even know about today.

Yet not everybody is mourning this myopic preoccupation with fiscal cliffs. In fact, there are those who love them. What better strategy for avoiding all our nation’s real-world problems than to create one artificial deadline after another that will keep Washington tied in knots all year long? That will get them through to Campaign 2014 and another opportunity for the big-money, special-interest, negative campaigning that stymied meaningful action all last year.

It might be entertaining if it weren’t for the staggering costs the country is paying. While our “policy-makers” hyper-ventilate over artificial cliffs, America continues down a slippery slope of unmet needs. Start with our basic physical infrastructure. At some point, rotting infrastructure collapses. The roads, bridges, railways, airports and public utilities that carry our commerce are deteriorating so rapidly that soon they will be incapable of sustaining it. And our lackadaisical approach to getting high speed broadband out to all our citizens (we’re somewhere around Number 16 in the world today in terms of broadband penetration) will short-circuit our ability to be competitive in the most essential of all Twenty-first century infrastructures. “Sorry,” we are told, “we can’t afford to invest in the future.” How is a country supposed to sustain (or, in our case, regain) its strength without nourishing the muscle that powers it?

This muscle goes far beyond physical infrastructure, of course. It goes to the schools that educate our greatest resource—our kids. It goes to healthcare for all our citizens, to energy independence from foreign oil, to battling the alarming rate of climate degradation. It goes to creating opportunities for minorities and women who have been systematically excluded from too many fields of business and work and education in our society.

Ignoring these problems, or even believing we can put them off until our economy and budget somehow get better all by themselves, is a guaranteed ride off the mother of all cliffs. America needs to be climbing mountains instead of falling off cliffs.

Truth be told, the only way we will ever get beyond the chronic budget deficits that some see as our only problem is to invest in America’s future. Even a top International Monetary Fund economist acknowledged last week, according to a January 3 story in The Washington Post, that prescribed austerity in Greece caused more harm than good by contracting the economy there. So much for the austerity approach to economic rejuvenation! I believe a similar dynamic is at work here in the United States. Laying off teachers doesn’t get budgets balanced. It only harms our kids’ education—and our country’s future.

Perhaps what we need more than anything right now is a serious and calm dialogue about the real challenges we face and the solutions that might help us overcome them. The venue for that discussion, and its facilitator, should of course be our media. Too often, however, media fails this challenge. It focuses on politics as a spectator sport, not as an opportunity to engage citizens in issues that matter. That dreadful fiscal cliff spectacle was 2013’s first Super Bowl. It was all about who’s up, who’s down, handicapping the players, analyzing the play-by-play, and identifying opponents’ weak spots. Pop the corn, grab a soda, and stay tuned for the next exciting installment in little more than a month. And we can already see 2014 taking shape—a series of broadcast fiscal cliff face-offs interrupted only by Super PAC and dark money political ads.

I end where I so often begin these writings. Until we have media that invest in real news, that dig for facts instead of just loud-mouthing opinions, that sustain resource-intensive investigative journalism, that analyze truly complex national issues and national choices, that hold the powerful accountable—until then, we will not have media that truly serve the public interest.

At a time when Washington stands in such embarrassing and costly gridlock, chances for Congressional and Executive Branch action on this issue seem remote. That doesn’t mean reform-minded folks aren’t going to push for change—it means we will push all the harder. But there is a first step that could begin to reverse our long media slide. It is dependent on neither Congressional nor Presidential action and is totally within powers long-since conferred. All it needs is three votes at a five-member independent Commission.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is once again considering new rules to allow more newspapers and television stations to be cross-owned. That translates into more reporters being fired, more newsrooms put under the axe, and more power for the media giants who profit when they cut budgets for real news and analysis and when they substitute bland homogenized programming for diverse local news and culture. The item would also eliminate restrictions on radio-TV station ownership, which means fewer small minority and diversity radio outlets around the country. It is a bad item.

Last month the FCC put off a vote on these rules—but only for 30 days and only after widespread outcry by public interest and civil rights groups who didn’t know how far the Commission proposed to go (because the item had not—and has not—been released to the public). Concerned groups worked through the holidays preparing comments in time to meet the ridiculous day-after-Christmas deadline set by the Commission. These comments, now part of the record, make clear beyond a shadow of doubt that the proposed FCC action is substantively wrong and procedurally deficient. Given this record, there ought to be three votes to scratch the pending item and get to work on new policies to ensure that the people’s airwaves actually serve the people’s interest. By doing this, the Commission would also demonstrate that somebody can still make a difference, that bad policies can be reversed, and that America’s destiny in not falling off cliffs. It’s climbing those mountains.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative.

By Michael Copps.