Q&A: FCC chief - USC study exposes fluff TV news in LA market

FCC Commissioner comments on the state of local news coverage in the LA market
FCC Commissioner comments on the state of local news coverage in the LA market flickr/tvol

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was in Los Angeles today to present a major new study of the L.A. media market by the USC Annenberg School’s Norman Lear Center. The study showed that, among other things, the average 30-minute TV newscast packs all of its local government coverage into just 22 seconds.

Commissioner Copps, who has criticized the FCC for being a “paper tiger” on station license renewals, told KPCC’s Patt Morrison that his main concern is whether the local media outlets are properly informing the people of Los Angeles of vital public interest stories.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps: “The overarching question is are the people of Los Angeles getting the news and the information they need to be fully informed and to be sufficiently knowledgeable about the issues to be engaged in the discussions and decisions that affect their community.

"And this report, which is just being released today, demonstrates that all is not well. And I won't go into all the findings of this report and I'm just reading it myself but one of them is pretty salient. Looking at an average half hour local news broadcast, the report says they find less than half a minute of hard local news about local government.

"That tells me that something is very wrong and I don't think this report is picking on the good people of Los Angeles because I've been all over this country, this is my passion... the future of our media and how is it serving our democracy, and what this report documents here I have seen and sensed all around the United States of America.

"We all know what the state of journalism is. You folks at NPR do a fantastic job on the news but a lot of your brethren in broadcasting aren't anywhere even visible in that rear view mirror.

"We know that newsrooms in so many broadcast stations and so many newspapers are being either cut back tremendously or closed. We know that reporters on the beat are rarer than they used to be.”

The question for Commissioner Copps, the FCC, and the rest of the federal government, is how to best use its influence and regulatory powers to affect changes on media outlets.

The commissioner lamented the scaling back of the journalism industry, due to layoffs of reporters and budget cuts forcing the closure of bureaus, and the overall shift of broadcast media away from hard news reporting and toward an “infotainment” style of coverage.

Given the regulatory reach of the FCC, Patt Morrison asked the Commissioner how he and his fellow commissioners could influence the scope and coverage of local news broadcasts.

COPPS: “We know that there are almost as many pink slips these days for journalists as there are pay stubs in the envelope. We know that investigative journalism is an endangered species.

"We've got a situation now where twenty-seven states, over half of the states in this country, do not have an accredited reporter on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. So, you tell me how that's a recipe for holding the accountable responsible. You tell me how to keep people informed so they can make an informed decision when voting time comes around.

"I am really, really worried about this. We've got too much infotainment subbing for real news and I think democracy is, is in peril by this and it's a problem. It's a problem, it's a challenge for us to fix our old media — newspapers and broadcasts because they are not disappearing, we're still, people get most of their news from them. It's just that they are just getting less news from them. But the most news that people get is from them.

"It may be that we'll get to this happy new world of the internet that will supply more in the days ahead but right now nobody sees a model there for supporting the kind of expensive journalism, opening bureaus, having reporters on the beat and all that that you need and the average blog can't do that.”

Patt Morrison: “There was a study within the last few weeks or so that 95 percent of all the actually news ....”

COPPS: “YES!”

PM: “...is produced by newspapers and magazines.”

COPPS: “Right.”

PM: “....But I do have this Norman Lear study in front of me, commissioner, and the numbers are pretty shocking: that 22 seconds is how much the average L.A. newscast devoted to covering all local government whether it was city budget or law enforcement or personnel. Twenty two seconds and they spent the most, the biggest chunk of time on sports and weather.”

COPPS: “Sports and weather.”

PM: “....The second biggest on odd ball. But my question sir, the FCC licenses these stations as news stations and if some of this is news then the Reagan administration was right and Ketchup really is a vegetable.”

COPPS: “The FCC has not regulated any of these stations with anything approaching a serious degree of public interest oversight.”

You can hear Patt Morrison’s entire interview with FCC Commissioner Michael Copps on the Patt Morrison page.

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