How big is too big for media freedom?
A reader’s eye was caught by an op-ed piece in the New York Times by journalistic gadflies Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Kovach is chair of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and Rosenstiel heads the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The subject is one that has been pending for some time, but only recently has become a political hot potato: doing away with federal rules blocking companies from buying a newspaper and television station in the same city, or from owning more than one TV station in that market.
The reason you haven’t read or heard much about it is that the big media companies are the ones that want to change the law, and are lobbying the FCC hard to get it done. And much of what we see and read on broadcast TV, cable, movies, publishing and even outdoor advertising is owned by 10 companies: AOL Time Warner, Disney, GE, News Corp., Viacom, Vivendi, Sony, Bertelsmann, AT&T, and Liberty Media.
The only medium not absorbed into this media megalopoly – yet – is newspapers, and this law could change that. For instance, in 2000, when the Tribune Co. (Chicago Tribune and other media) bought Times Mirror Co. (Los Angeles Times and other media), the deal included TV stations in cities where Tribune owned newspapers. The company is betting that the FCC, led by Michael Powell (son of Colin Powell), will let them keep it all.
Lots of companies are betting on that, too. While most large independent newspapers already have been snapped up by chains, now smaller chains are becoming takeover targets by big ones. Rumors have been flying for some time that McClatchy, headquartered in Sacramento and owner of a chain of Bees, is a prime candidate. Word is that the fourth-generation owners of Freedom Newspapers, which includes the Marysville Appeal Democrat, are looking to cash out.
A lot of people are starting to get worried. On one hand, the media companies point out the law is unfair, and outdated by market changes brought on by the growth of alternative information sources, such as the Internet, satellite broadcasts and cable TV. On the other hand, as Kovach and Rosenstiel point out, when radio ownership rules were relaxed in 1996, the two biggest companies went from owning 130 stations to more than 1,400.
What might that mean for the diversity of news and information? One example: Black Entertainment Television killed off much of its news and public affairs programming after being bought by Viacom. Under Viacom, CBS News has to spend much of its valuable air time promoting entertainment shows, such as “Survivor.”
What also worries critics is the disappearing concept that media using the public airwaves or public cable monopolies should pay attention to “public service.” The FCC’s Powell laughed scornfully once in a speech: “The night after I was sworn in, I waited for a visit from the angel of the public interest. I waited all night, but she did not come.” Powell, observed media critic Mark Crispin Miller, “has never sounded glib about his sacred obligations to the corporate interest.”
In Nevada County, we remain for now an outpost of media independence. The news radio station, KNCO, is locally owned, and KVMR, which has some information programming, is community supported. The Union, the only daily newspaper in the county, is owned by a small family chain based in Reno, Swift Newspapers.
Swift is doing everything it can to hang onto its independence as a local voice. When founder Philip Swift came to a crossroads in 1998 – whether to sell out for hundreds of millions or to pass the newspapers to his children, Dave Trussel, Marilyn Shelton and Janet Buschert – the three said they wanted to carry on the family business.
The decision meant they had to pay heavy estate taxes, but not only have they continued to pour money back into their papers, but Swift helped form an organization called Family Newspapers of America. It offers a safe haven for families who decide to sell their own newspapers, and buys newspapers from publicly owned chains and returns them to private ownership.
Is bigger better? Is the law change just basic fairness, or the death knell for an independent press? We’ll know soon. The FCC is accepting public comment only until the end of the month at 445 12th Street, SW, Washington, DC 20554, or at http://www.fcc.gov.
Richard Somerville is editor of The Union. His column appears each Saturday.
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