‘We’ve Got to Start Talking About How Are We Going to Build an Alternative’

December 8 | Posted by Rich Culbertson | Media Feeds

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Janine Jackson interviewed Craig Aaron about funding local media for the December 2, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Craig Aaron (image: C-SPAN)

Craig Aaron: “There’s so much going uncovered at the local level, in the places where people really can make a difference.” (image: C-SPAN)

MP3 Link

Janine Jackson: As big corporate media try to puzzle out whether they can get away with their usual lapdog routine with a president-elect who openly berates and threatens them, many people have already determined that big corporate media are not actually where they’re going to be looking for the news and perspectives that we need to help us forward in these times, and inform our resistance to a racist, sexist, anti-worker, anti-poor, anti-environment, anti-civil liberties administration. Just as many now look to states and local governments for legislative and policy protections, some see the local space as a site of hopefulness for news media as well.

It’s not just pipe dreams: There is a development on that front, and here to tell us about it is Craig Aaron, president of the group Free Press. He joins us by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Craig Aaron.

Craig Aaron: Oh, thanks for having me back.

JJ: Let’s get right to it. I just read an article headlined “A Chance to Invest Millions in the News and Information People Need.” So what’s the story?

AuctionCA: We have this really unique opportunity that I think could be one of the answers to how do we actually provide the journalism and meet the community information needs that have gone underserved or unserved for so long. And it basically works like this: The Federal Communications Commission is in the midst of auctioning off a big chunk of the public airwaves. And they’re asking broadcasters—or they’re not really asking them, they’re paying them—to go off the air or move their stations to another channel, in order to create more space for mobile data. So they’re going to move the TV stations out and turn around and auction off those airwaves to mobile phone companies and others.

In the middle of all this are a number of public television stations, at least 54, considering it, by our count at Free Press. And we think these are public stations using the public airwaves with public interest obligations, and yet the public hasn’t been brought into this conversation about what happens when these stations are auctioned off, and what happens to all the money. And we’re talking potentially about a lot of money, billions and billions of dollars, that will go to the license owners of these stations.

So when we’re talking about public stations, these are state and local governments, universities, other nonprofit institutions. And we were particularly interested in the state of New Jersey, which owns four public TV stations, valued by the FCC for as much as $2.3 billion. So even if only some of the stations are sold, and the price comes down in the auction, which it will do, we could still be talking about hundreds of millions of dollars created, going into the coffers of New Jersey.

And we’re stepping in to say, we need to use some of that money to set up a permanent public fund that will actually support independent local journalism projects, public media, other innovative community information projects. And this is actually a chance to do it, a windfall, hundreds of millions of dollars, that could be used to create the journalism that communities actually need.

JJ: So just to be clear, it’s not that we would be calling for this to happen, it’s happening. The stations are selling off these airwaves. The question is, what happens with the money, and will the public have some say in that?

CA: Exactly. So the auction is going to happen either way, and they are going to clear out these channels. Something like channel 33 to 51 on the dial, there’s not going to be TV stations there anymore. And so the question becomes, yeah, what happens to all of that money? You know, if Congress was doing their job, they would have already set aside some of these funds to support community information needs. But the fact is, we think that—we’d like to see all stations contribute, but we think these public stations, as public television stations, have an added obligation, and that the money from their sale shouldn’t simply go to shore up some short-term state budget holes or fill out a university endowment, that we actually need to reinvest it in local communities.

And the only way that that’s going to happen is if we campaign and push for it. So that’s what we’re starting to do in New Jersey. Depending on the final results of the auction, we don’t know what those are yet, there may be other cities—Washington, DC; Chicago—that might benefit if, indeed, their stations are sold and are going off the air.

It’s a little bit of a black box while it’s happening—the people in the auction can’t actually talk about the auction. But we know that it’s happening, we know that there are dozens of public television stations involved, and we know there are hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, at stake. And the question is, how should we spend that money? That’s the part of the conversation we’re looking to change.

JJ: Well, activists that I’ve been talking to have been saying they’re not wanting to give up on the federal level, but they are saying we might look to local levels and the state levels for some interventions that could actually help real people in real time. That the country is not just the president and the people, although media sometimes sort of present it that way, and not just in their content, but also in their structure.

You know, we’ve seen a number of local outlets disappear. So a place like you’re talking about, like New Jersey, they might get news from Philadelphia, they might get news from New York, but the big media conglomerates say, we don’t really need to serve this specific community; they’ll be happy enough with news from the nearest big city. So there’s a real void here that could be filled.

CA: That’s right, and I think this is one of those answers. The fact is that the corporate media, the market, has not been providing news in these places in huge parts of our country, where tens of thousands of journalists lost their jobs. We’re quickly approaching—we’re going to have half the number of daily journalists working than we had a couple of decades ago. There’s so much going uncovered at the local level, in the places where people really can make a difference, but those school board meetings and those activities of local officials are simply not being covered. Even all the way up to our members of Congress and senators, who used to have five or six reporters following them around, maybe there’s one now.

So, so much is going uncovered, and we see the impact at the local level. You have more corruption, less monies brought home to districts, less accountability, all the way up to the election of Donald Trump. A lot of this could be laid right at the feet of this media failure, and the fact that journalism institutions are really weak at a moment where we need them to be stronger. So we have to start looking for other answers. We just can’t hope it will work out; we’ve got to find other sources to get the kind of news and information we need to actually have a functioning democracy. There’s really that much at stake.

So I think we do have to look at the state level. There’s a lot of defense to be played at the federal level, to try to protect the victories we’ve had, to try to protect the most vulnerable, who are going to be the first in line when all of these terrible changes happen. But at the same time, we’ve got to look for opportunities like this that offer a different vision, offer some long-term change and really build, for lack of a better word, sanctuaries at the city and state level against what’s happening in these national trends.

JJ: We know that the void that we’re talking about is there for a reason. It’s not that people said they didn’t care about local news. It’s not that people said, as we often hear, oh well, we have the internet, we don’t need that anymore. People have always been interested in news at their community level.

But the policy changes have been enabled by the FCC, which has been slowly, steadily eroding the public interest obligations that would protect those things. And on that front, we now may have an administration that wants to straight-out eliminate the FCC, which would seem to make  these kinds of efforts even more important.

CA: I think that’s absolutely right, and that is something we’re worried about. Not necessarily that the FCC, the building, will disappear, but that you basically won’t be able to tell the difference of whether there’s an FCC or not. And the kind of folks that the Trump administration is putting on the transition team, the likely candidates to take over there, have a really dangerous and damaging agenda, and you can see already every big corporate player lining up with their wish list of the things that they haven’t been able to get done for the last ten years.

They’re going to try to gut media ownership limits. They’re coming for net neutrality. They’re going to try to prevent poor people from getting broadband, even doing away with fixes to overcharging on prison phones. I mean, all the way down the list, they’re going to come for those policies. We’re going to have to fight that.

But we’re also going to have to build alternatives, and one thing about political moments like this is that they’re moments of clarity. And the question, you know, the questions that FAIR has been asking forever about the failures of the corporate media, well, those aren’t questions anymore, if they were.

JJ: Right.

CA: The evidence is in, and we’ve got to start talking about how are we going to build an alternative. We think using these public resources in smart ways that actually serve local communities, that are actually innovative, that actually go out and ask people what kind of news and information they want, is a big part of that. Because if they start seeing the stories they actually care about, their communities reflected in a real way, a lot more people are going to care about the future of journalism and the future of news, when it’s actually benefiting their lives and not doing what it’s done for far too long, which is, frankly, misrepresenting and harming them.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press. They’re online at FreePress.net, and that’s where you can also get involved in their actions around this spectrum auction. Craig Aaron, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

CA: Thank you.

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