Commissions provide compass for change

Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy represents long tradition of high profile commissions concerned with media

In November 2017 at the New York Public Library, members of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy met to begin listening, debating and thinking about the crisis in trust we are facing. And a year later, they met at the same location, a public library devoted to learning, to put finishing touches on the final report and recommendations that the Aspen Institute, which has been running the effort, will release in early 2019.

Why a commission and why now? The urgency of the crisis in trust in the media, and the damage that does to democracy, has been well documented over the course of the year here.

Members of the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy, New York Public Library, October 2018. Credit: The Aspen Institute.

But why a commission?

Organizing a commission of citizens or officials to investigate, analyze and report on thorny problems plaguing society is a longstanding tradition in American democratic culture. Think of the 9–11 Commission, which found failures in the national security agencies to prevent terrorist attacks. Or consider the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which studied the causes of the 2008 financial breakdown.

At their best, commissions can explain past failures with an eye on influencing the future. Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, often describes this as providing a “compass, not a roadmap.” A commission can explore problems and point to a future direction, but it’s up to citizens and leaders to figure out the details and forge the path forward.

The Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy joins several high profile commissions over time that have interrogated the role of the media in democracy. Here are some of the most influential:

1947: The Hutchins Commission, aka the Commission on Freedom of the Press, launched during World War II, when concerns were widespread about the spread of political propaganda as well as sensationalist reporting. The Commission’s report endorsed the concept that the media has a “social responsibility,” and that to avoid government censorship and remain free, it must embrace that concept. While there was some pushback from news organizations, the report “gave the press a face-saving way to meet some of the criticism sent its way,” wrote Margaret A. Blanchard in 1977 monograph. “Although many press leaders found fault with the Commission and its report, the overall theme of increased press “responsibility” was hard to avoid.”

The Hutchins Commission, chaired by Robert Hutchins. Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf1–05439, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

1967: The Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, in “Public Television: A Program for Action,” recommended the development of an educational television system to meet needs not met by by the broadcast industry: “a well-financed and well-directed educational television system, substantially larger and far more pervasive and effective than that which now exists in the United States, must be brought into being if the full needs of the American public are to be served.” President Lyndon Johnson embraced the findings of the report, and Congress followed: the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created a national system of public television.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Credit: LBJ library.

1967: The Kerner Commission, aka “National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” created by President Lyndon Johnson The Kerner Commission was primarily focused on the causes of racial unrest. But the report pointed toward the mass media as contributing to the challenges, for failing to communicate to the public about “the sense of the degradation, misery and hopelessness of life in the ghetto.” Recommendations included that the media should increase recruitment of African American journalists and: “integrate Negroes and Negro activities into all aspects of coverage and content, including newspaper articles and television programming. The news media must publish newspapers and produce programs that recognize the existence and activities of Negroes as a group within the community and as a part of the larger community.” The recent 50th anniversary of this commission prompted conversations about its legacy–with critics noting that the media still lacks diversity.

President Lyndon Johnson,with members of the Kerner Commission. Credit: Library of Congress.

2009: The Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities. In 2009, the Knight Foundation created the commission, run by the Aspen Institute, to consider the challenges facing communities in the newly emerging digital age. The final report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” grappled with many of the same issues that the current commission is facing, namely the collapse of the traditional business model for newspapers with the rise of the Internet. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2010 National Broadband plan included recommendations similar to those in the report calling for universal online access for all communities. The commission helped inspire the FCC’s 2011 report,“The Information Needs of Communities,” written by Steven Waldman, who now directs Report for America.

Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities at the Newseum. Credit: The Aspen Isntitute.

Knight sees a role for commissions beyond the issues surrounding media. For example, Knight funds the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent group with a legacy of promoting reforms that support and strengthen the educational mission of college sports. In 19 years of continual operation, the KCIA has effectively become the conscience of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy is finalizing recommendations that touch on many of these themes from commissions past, including diversity, literacy, and responsibility. But each new era calls for a new plan, as changes in society and technology raise new challenges.

Eric Newton, who served as vice president of journalism for the Knight Foundation during this last commission, describes one way to look at the current Commission’s mandate: that it must incorporate all of the ideas from these past seminal commissions and reports and apply them to online life now: “We need social responsibility in cyberspace. We need diversity, in cyberspace. We need to do all these things again that we weren’t even able to fully accomplish in regular space, but do them now in cyberspace,” he said.

The Commission’s report and recommendations will only be a first step, a compass to point the way. What happens next is up to all of us.