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FCC Official Blasts Social Media 'Smear Campaign'

WASHINGTON -- There are plenty of exuberant new media types who are keen to argue that blogs, Twitter feeds and other novel ways of sharing information will be able to pick up the journalistic slack left by the erosion of mainstream media outlets, if not replace them altogether.

Mark Lloyd is not one of them.

Lloyd, who was appointed associate general counsel and chief diversity officer at the Federal Communications Commission in late July, this morning addressed the rude greeting he received from members of the conservative media, a decidedly modern attack campaign born on the blogosphere, then picked up by popular cable and radio talk show hosts before circulating around sites like Facebook and YouTube. Eventually the controversy gained enough momentum that news services and newspapers began reporting on it.

"Anyone who suggests that old media -- whether newspapers or radio or cable -- no longer matters has not fully experienced the impact of old media," Lloyd said at an event hosted by the Media Access Project. "Anyone who suggests that Facebook and YouTube are the answers to the problems of old media has not been confronted by a smear campaign using these social media tools."

Lloyd became a target for some of his comments and writings on the First Amendment, which some critics interpreted as a sign that he was seeking to reinstate the fairness doctrine, the controversial policy the FCC scrapped in 1987 that required broadcasters to present opposing viewpoints on controversial issues.

Conservative pundits have long warned against any efforts to revive the fairness doctrine -- either in name or spirit -- which they contend is an affront to free speech and a veiled attempt to push them off the air. The incoming FCC commissioners were each asked about their views on the issue in their Senate confirmation hearings. Each expressed unequivocal opposition.

The attack against Lloyd also fit in with the growing criticism in some conservative quarters of the seemingly endless parade of "czars" the Obama administration has installed. It coincided with a more fevered opposition strike against Van Jones, who had been dubbed the "green jobs czar," led perhaps most vocally by Fox News' Glenn Beck and ultimately resulting in Jones' resignation.

In both cases, the Web played an integral part in drumming up opposition, with YouTube videos of controversial remarks the individuals had made, along with footage of Beck and other critics denouncing them ricocheting around the Internet. Advocacy groups and industry lobbies picked up on the charges, incorporating them into e-mail blasts to their members and leaning on receptive members of Congress, who began speaking out against what they described as insidious and anti-democratic voices in the administration.

In his case, Lloyd described the new-media echo chamber as having amplified hostile commentary and out-of-context quotes to the point where the lies were repeated enough that people eventually came to believe them -- vintage propaganda.

"Allow me to clear away some mud," he said this morning. "I'm not a czar appointed by President Obama. I'm not at the FCC to restore the fairness doctrine through the front door or the back door. Or to carry out a secret plot funded by George Soros to get rid of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck or any other conservative talk show host. I'm not at the FCC to remove anybody -- whatever their color -- from power. I'm not a supporter of Hugo Chavez. The right-wing smear campaign has been, in a word, incredible."

Lloyd, clearly still stung from the attacks that he said resulted in hate mail and death threats, decried the "warped and simplistic distortions" of his writings and comments. But he also noted that social media was an integral part of the campaign that won Obama the presidency.

But in the context of journalism, a subject of considerable anxiety these days, Lloyd sees social media as a technological complement to practices like fact checking and background research that he considers hallmarks of the professional craft.

"To separate old media from new media is to not understand the interrelationship between media," he said. "To elevate and place hope in new media and determine that old media is not relevant is to misunderstand our complex media environment."

So the relationship between old and new is symbiotic. But what happens after the former gives way to the latter?

Lloyd, it should be noted, does not have the responsibility for setting federal policies that could reshape the news industry. Among the proposals currently on the table, which range from increased funding for public media to changes to copyright, antitrust or tax law, each would require an act of Congress.

But he did note, as have many others, that the work of news gathering and reporting is imperiled, hinting that the government has a role to play. He looked back to the formation of the U.S. Postal Service in the 18th century, a government-backed institution that initially included a subsidy to distribute newspapers.

"I do not suggest that we return to that model, only that we have something to learn from it," he said, without recommending any specific policy proposals. What seems clear enough to Lloyd, though, is that the Internet and the economic upheaval it has brought to the news business has left a void that he would like to see filled.

"Citizens should know how to distinguish journalism from propaganda, and to check with a variety of media to guard against the dangers of media bias," he said. "Journalism, frankly, does not describe the culture of the blogosphere or social media. Increasingly, the word journalism does not describe the work of most old media these days."