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Cable news note: can we regulate the news?

This week, the UK government revealed plans that would require Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+ to adhere to their broadcasting standards. They said they'll consider whether to strengthen the rules regarding age ratings and if they should meet standards on impartiality and accuracy for documentaries and news programming. Note this is coming from the conservative leadership of Boris Johnson. While the British historically have wielded greater authority over their media (they don't have the first amendment to circumvent, for one), it is still significant that American platforms may have to adjust their editorial practices to appease the lucrative European (billion dollar) market.

For background, the UK Office of Communications (Ofcom) mandates a code for impartiality and accuracy. Presumably that's the standard the U.S. content providers would need to meet. It's still early in the policy development, but this is certainly something to watch. We'll see how the streaming platforms react, and if it has an effect on content (they wouldn't produce two sets of production, would they, one for UK/Europe and one for the US?). Will they adopt age ratings (and the idea of labeling) more generally. The nuttiest possibility, though is, what if American content producers begin to accept some level of oversight? Would that ever become culturally acceptable here?

Yes, I'm a little biased in this regard. I have specific thoughts about the possibility of oversight which I'll be sharing in the near future. (No, I'm not thinking about the Fairness Doctrine. There are other possibilities to oversee the industry.)

But let's contemplate the state of the cable news industry for a moment. Most people recognize how polarizing FOX News, MSNBC, and (to a lesser degree) CNN are to the public. What I can tell you as a former cable news producer is that much of that polarization is made worse by the financial incentives of the market. That's not to say broadcasters wouldn't be ideological, but the need to draw in the biggest audiences results in anchors' needs to stoke the audience with fear and hatred. We saw it before January 6 and after. That phenomenon will continue without some sort of structural change. Adoption of ethical standards would certainly help.

As it is, CNN reportedly made more than a billion dollars in profit last year. That's profit, as in, not revenue, so after their costs have been factored in. Likewise, in their latest quarterly report, FOX says it earned $3.22 billion in revenue. Yes, the hosts and producers have big incentives to draw in big audiences (especially when you add the ratings bonuses they receive for hitting set targets). I don't want to ask if you think they deserve that large sum of cash, but I will ask if you think the industry should meet certain ethical standards and practice better transparency, when so much is at stake.

Why do they need ethical standards?

These outlets often face conflicts of interest and adopting ethical standards would at least help mitigate those conflicts. A current example I see is how NBC Universal (which owns NBC News and MSNBC) has incentives to encourage the Tokyo Olympics to proceed (the games are always a cash cow for the company). This past week, the executives hosted an (almost) two-hour press event touting NBC coverage of the sporting event, however reportedly (but unsurprisingly), they spent very little time discussing the safety concerns for the host country, Japan, a nation that has very low (seven-percent) vaccination rates. As Deadline reports,

[M]edical experts and others both inside and outside Japan have issued strong calls for the Olympics to be pushed again. Protesters took to the streets of Tokyo earlier in the day, reflecting polls of public sentiment that have shown in recent weeks that a decisive majority of residents opposes the Games being held.

Have you seen any coverage of the controversy on MSNBC? I have not. To be fair, I haven't seen coverage on CNN either. This piece for NBC's Nightly News doesn't mention the protests nor the experts who have called for the games to be postponed. Odd, since the focus of the segment was indeed the pandemic concerns, which they downplay, saying what may be "difficult days" for the participants. Individual events may need to be cancelled and capacity will be limited to 50%. Otherwise, I've somehow missed their responsible coverage of the pandemic risks to the host country. It is cynical of me to think it's due to a financial conflict of interest.

What else could we do?

This week, I came across a couple of possible solution for media outlets. The Forum on Information and Democracy has issued a report titled, A New Deal for Journalism, which presents a plan to guarantee up to 0.1% of GDP a year into journalism. Their recommendations include the following:

  • Ensure full transparency of media ownership as part of broader measures on transparency, anti-corruption and financial integrity

  • Implement initiatives allowing quality journalism to be singled out and given a comparative advantage again, such as the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), to restore confidence among all stakeholders

  • Support and adopt international measures for taxing digital platforms, such as the global minimum corporate tax rate proposed by the OECD

  • Develop hybrid funding for the media, combining philanthropy and public support by establishing private-public blended financial instruments for commercial and non-profit media

  • Secure from governments a commitment to spending 1% of official development assistance on support for independent media and their enabling environment

  • Establish support mechanisms allowing citizens to support media organizations of their choice (such as media vouchers, tax relief on subscriptions, or income tax designations)

  • Structure the reflection on the impact of AI on journalism by including journalism and media as strategic sectors in national Artificial Intelligence strategies and roadmaps

More on this later, but I would draw your attention to the promise of private-public funding structures.

On twitter, W. Jeffrey Brown, founder of Fourth Estate, raised the idea how news organizations should be Public Benefit Cooperatives. This is certainly a prospect we should explore. It is just one of the many possible solutions we may adopt to help support the news landscape overall, but especially to help improve TV news.

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