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CHAPTER III - Policy Principles

Policymakers, Professor Kevin Werbach said, find themselves thrust into new media environments with policy tools that may not be well-suited to contemporary challenges. On the one hand, policymakers face a new media market when enduring societal values related to media and communications—universality and affordability of access, localism, diversity of content (and content creators), a dynamic and competitive marketplace, privacy, security and more—remain as important as ever.

Yet there was a palpable sense that the current political and economic climate demands more from communications policy than in the past. Political issues divide Americans in ways rarely seen in our history. According to the Pew Research Center, the gap between Democrats and Republicans across 10 key political values stands at 36 percentage points today, more than twice the gap (17 points) recorded in 2004. This contributes to public discourse that is often filled with invective. And although the health of the economy seems by many measures to be sound, many Americans feel anxiety about economic change and disconnected from economic growth. This put three values into play with respect to communications policy:

  1. Inclusion: With new media having growing influence in society, inclusion takes on a greater urgency. It is important that all Americans have access to the tools for participating in new media. Additionally, new media should encourage a diverse set of Americans to become involved in the environment.
  2. Common culture: New media should help Americans find common ground on issues of the day, whether that refers to political ones or on the rules of civic discourse.
  3. Truth discovery: New media should result in a convergence in what the public commonly understands to be the factual underpinning of a particular public issue. The “marketplace of ideas,” whereby truth emerges from a competition of ideas in the give-and-take of free expression, may suffer from market failure in the world of new media.

There was a sense among many participants that new media falls short in fostering inclusion, developing common culture and enabling truth discovery, but much less agreement on how or whether policymakers should try to address the shortfalls. The discussion around inclusion, for instance, touched on the theme of economic inequality and whether media policy might help narrow wage gaps between high-income and lower- and middle-income Americans. Norman Ornstein argued that media and economic inequality are more connected today than in the past. In schools in some low-income neighborhoods, more than half of students only have access to a networked computer at school. This puts them at a severe disadvantage in developing skills for today’s economy.

Others were less sanguine that digital media tools and associated policy initiatives could bear the weight of reducing economic inequality or lifting public discourse. Brent Olson of AT&T noted that it may have been an historical irregularity for media to have provided a common voice for society in the post-World War II era. Rick Kaplan added that, to the extent that ensuring that the media support a common culture means examining content on media platforms, government is ill-suited to police content.

Nonetheless, two issues emerged as topics for policymakers to consider. The first is access to the audience. As Arun Palakurthy from Dodge and Cox noted, in 1980 the top 10 television shows reached 50% of the audience, whereas today the top 100 shows reach 50% of the audience. The costs of creating content have fallen, which opens a pathway to the audience to many more people in the past. But actually reaching them is a problem. As Jessica Gonzalez observed in the context of new media and equity, “More speech as a counter to hate speech only works if some of the groups who have traditionally not had a voice in the media have access to [the] audience.” A generation ago, groups subject to hate speech had limited access to the media. New media allows them to raise their voices, but that only works if they have access to the audience.

And access to the audience remains an issue in the world of new media. As the Boston Consulting Group notes, there is significant market concentration in the OTT market, with five global companies (Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime) earning half of the $25 billion in global OTT revenues.i Companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter now play a role in connecting creators of content to the audiences they want to reach. That role, Arun Palakurthy noted, may warrant regulatory scrutiny.

The other issue is inclusion—a notion that encompasses several different topics. For some, this means diverse participation in new media. Even if the ease of participation in new media is greater than a generation ago, it is not necessarily the case that diverse voices will be part of new media platforms. Moreover, some segments of the population may lack the rudiments that enable inclusion for new media—such as a home internet service plan or a network in their neighborhood whose speed permits full participation.

Inclusion may also mean public discourse that facilitates common understanding of societal issues. As noted above, the contemporary new media ecosystem means that fragmentation sells; extremism and hyper-partisanship attract audiences, so there is money to be made for those who create and distribute such content.

i BCG, op.cit., p. 15-16.
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