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Remarks of William E. Kennard
Federal Communications Commission
to the
Radio-Television News Director Association Annual Convention
San Antonio, Texas
September 25, 1998
(as prepared for delivery)

Thank you, Patricia, for that very warm introduction.

I want to talk today about news, which is a subject that you know much more about than I do. But I do share your view about the importance of news to our society and to our democracy. And, I share your love of journalism.

I say that because for a good part of my life, I wanted to be where you are today, and probably would have been had it not been for one of your members.

All through college I wanted to be an investigative journalist. Like many people of my generation, Watergate was a defining time in my life, and I thought there was no higher or better use of my talents than becoming a tough investigative journalist.

I majored in Communications in college, and admit that I spent more time at the college radio station than at the library. Every college with a college radio station has a cadre of radio station groupies. I was one of them. But I didn't play records on the radio; I did news and public affairs. I was dreaming about a stint on "60 Minutes."

And in my senior year in college, I landed my dream job. I got an internship at an NBC affiliate in San Francisco.

I loved that job, and toward the end of the summer, I asked the General Manager if he would hire me to be the station's full time investigative reporter. I even pitched him on my first story.

He was very kind. He didn't laugh. He didn't dismiss me out of hand. He sat me down and said, "You know, Bill, San Francisco is a pretty big market. You don't have any experience. And besides, I couldn't put you on the air right now because you look too young, especially for an investigative reporter. So why don't you go off to law school. Then come back and we'll talk."

So I did go off to law school and wound up as Chairman of the FCC. Now, some people say I look too young to have this job.

But I have remained a news junkie my entire life. And I still wonder sometimes about the path not taken in my own career.

In college I loved going into the community and doing interviews -- piecing together stories. Stirring things up on the airwaves.

I went to Stanford University, which is located near East Palo Alto, an African American community. I and some of the other African American students at the radio station worked hard to try to use the airwaves to integrate the life of the campus into the life of the black community. And we had some successes at it.

And I learned back then -- first hand -- that news is a collection of perspectives and decisions made by the reporters and editors. And who these people are -- their viewpoints and life experiences -- makes a difference in what stories are reported and how they get reported.

I learned early on to value diversity in the newsroom.

Some people don't share my views on this, including some very influential judges. Last week the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decided not to rehear a constitutional challenge to the FCC's equal employment opportunity rules. For three decades, these rules have played a significant role in ensuring that minorities and women have employment opportunities in the newsroom.

This really came home to me when I did some press interviews after we lost that case, and some of the minority and women reporters took me aside and said, "You know, I would not have gotten an opportunity without those rules." And they told me how the rules helped them to get a foot in the door in this business.

Well, I am working with the Justice Department to decide whether we should appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Another option is to find a way to rewrite the rules to meet the court's concerns. But of this I am certain. We will continue the struggle to bring diversity to America's newsrooms.

And I am glad that you share my views on this. Indeed, that is one of the reasons that I wanted so much to be with you here today. Because for many years, RTNDA has worked to focus attention on the importance of diversity in the newsroom. You have done more than talk about this issue, you are doing something about it. The RTNDA Foundation's Newsroom Diversity Campaign is a significant effort. I commend you for it and I want to do everything I can to support it.

Since the court issued its decision, 21 of our nation's leading media companies have pledged to me that they will continue to abide by EEO principles, whether required by law or not. You work for many of these companies. Commend those that have made this pledge; make sure they abide by it. Cajole those that haven't. We can work together on this.

When it comes to opportunity, you'd think that the explosion of news programming would create more opportunity for quality TV journalism. I have my doubts.

Comedy writer Robert Smigel joked recently in Rolling Stone that by the year 2018, TV will boast 400 channels, although 340 will just show Dateline.

The explosion of news is a significant development in your business -- and in our society.

Until recently, America had three network evening news shows, one cable news network, and a couple of weekly news magazine programs.

Today we have four network nightly news shows, two sports networks, several news web sites with video. We have 100 cable channels and hundreds, maybe thousands of news-based Web sites on the Internet.

The Economist magazine says that MSNBC broke the story about the crash of TWA Flight 800 at 9:37 pm, the moment they got the story. They beat CNN by minutes. WNBC, NBC's New York affiliate, provided the first aerial pictures within an hour, and had a reporter on the scene in a boat. MSNBC did wall-to-wall coverage, and CNBC and NBC did hourly updates.

This pattern is repeated for every major news event.

News is a multimedia event, pumped out 24 hours a day by broadcast, cable, satellite, and the Internet. The audience for network evening news shows has fallen by half since 1993, and 20% of Americans now get at least some of their news from a web site.

You know it better than anyone.

How to present the news in a fragmented marketplace must be a challenge for you.

It must be a challenge when your audiences keep getting hacked up into smaller and smaller pieces, while station ownership becomes more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

I spend a lot of time in my job talking to broadcasters. I have some sense of the pressures that you are under these days.

Everybody seems to be cost-cutting -- both NBC and CBS announced layoffs in the past month. They said they had to do it to because of the rise in the cost of entertainment programming.

More and more has to go to the bottom line.

Seems like no station is immune. Your General Manager has got to respond to the advertisers. He or she tells you to do more with less, and, by the way, get better demos. "Better demos," from what I am told, usually means younger viewers.

When you're directed to do more with less, you've got tough decisions to make. You might have to trim your staff. Maybe you replace senior reporters with less experienced ones, who you can pay less.

Maybe you devote less coverage to stories for the over 55 crowd, to shave those demos down. Maybe you do fewer in depth investigative stories.

I suppose these pressures are not new. When I was an aspiring TV journalist, I remember reading in one of Fred Friendly's books, that in 1966, when he was president of CBS News, he fought against the network executives when they refused to preempt "I Love Lucy" to air the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the Vietnam War.

So I suppose these tensions between journalism and the bottom line have always been there. But I do think that striking the balance between journalistic and commercial imperatives is harder these days -- with more competition for eyeballs and more audience fragmentation. Is it any wonder the average tenure of a TV news director is only two years?

As much as these trends concern you, they also concern me. As policymakers, we at the FCC ask what these trends mean for the public interest.

One concern I have is concentration of ownership. What if four group owners owned every television station in every major market in ten years? Would this have an effect on the quality of news coverage for the country? Of course it would.

Usually, when broadcasters come before the FCC and argue for more consolidation, they say that more consolidation will mean more and better quality news and public affairs programming.

Apparently, RTNDA agrees with this -- at least they have in the past. Because RTNDA has supported virtually every ownership deregulation proposal that has come down the pike. You argued along with broadcast owners that broadcasters would use economies of scale from consolidation to increase coverage of news and improve studios and equipment. Well, have they? Your own reports tell me that consolidation causes broadcast owners to cutback on serious reporting and replace it with fluff and syndicated news.

And even if consolidation brought more resources to the newsroom, isn't there a cost to journalism when more licenses are concentrated in fewer hands?

But as much as I care about the quality of news coverage in America, as Chairman of the FCC, I will never seek to inject my agency into the content of news coverage. When Phil Hartman is murdered one week before the California gubernatorial primary, it's for LA news directors to decide which story to cover and how to cover it. I may not like the way that issue gets decided, but I believe fundamentally that it is not the appropriate role of government to micromanage news content. I believe that this is a value rooted deeply in our First Amendment tradition.

But it is the appropriate role of government to seek to maximize the number of speakers -- to maximize the number of voices in the marketplace. This, too, is a value rooted deeply in our First Amendment tradition.

And it is appropriate government to ensure that those who are entrusted with a license to use the public's airwaves reach out and create opportunity -- both in front of and behind the camera -- so that their programming reflects the rich diversity of their communities.

I got my first job in broadcast TV -- that internship I told you about -- because community groups in San Francisco went to their local TV stations and said that it was unacceptable that there were no African Americans in the management of TV stations in their city. When some stations said they couldn't find any "qualified minorities" to hire, the community groups told them to go out and find talented young minorities and train them. So they started an internship program. They hired three of us. Today, one is a correspondent for CBS news; another is a TV producer; and you have me up here still wondering whether I will ever get a stint on "60 Minutes."

The point is that by working to bring diversity into your ranks, you serve your communities better. You improve your product and your profession.

Well, I guess it's too late for me to get that stint on "60 Minutes," but I am happy to be here today to talk about a profession that I still love dearly and to do my part to support the good works of the RTNDA Foundation.

Congratulations on your success and thank you for having me here today.