Hold the line on media consolidation

by Ryan Blethen, Seattle Times

Federal Communications Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps know media consolidation is a policy topic that actually inspires passion. In city after city, they have been forcefully told to hold the line on media consolidation. They will hear the same plea in Seattle next week.

Chances are the commissioners will be in for a long night. In 2003, they were held for three hours after another unofficial hearing at the University of Washington listening to concerns about media concentration.

The two commissioners have been crisscrossing the country the past couple of years in an effort to show the other three FCC commissioners that people intuitively understand that too many news outlets under the control of a single company is bad policy.

It is too bad that Copps and Adelstein even have to hold as many hearings on the subject as they do. The past behavior of the FCC leaves the two Democrats with little choice but to organize unofficial hearings.

When the FCC was revisiting cross-ownership rules in 2003, Adelstein and Copps held hearingsacross the nation. They did this because former FCC Chairman Michael Powell would not. Copps and Adelstein invited their three Republican colleagues to the hearings. Powell didn't show for any hearings.

Powell's case for dropping the cross-ownership rules, which would have allowed a company to own an unlimited number of radio and television stations in a market, was bolstered when a report commissioned by the FCC was buried. The report stated that consolidated media damaged local television news. How convenient for Powell and the media biggies the report remained hidden.

Powell's FCC went on to change the media-ownership rules. Thankfully, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia sent the new rules back to the FCC. The court said the FCC could drop the cross-ownership ban but did not want to dissect the entire rule-change package from the bench.

Republican appointee Kevin Martin now occupies Powell's chair. He has said there will be six official public hearings around the nation while the FCC takes up the media ownership rules again. One was held in Los Angeles last month, and another is scheduled for Dec. 11 in Nashville, Tenn.

It is encouraging that Adelstein and Copps are holding additional hearings. They have invited their three Republican colleagues. None plan on being in Seattle.

This is too important an issue to split down party lines. At least one Republican should attend the Copps/Adelstein hearings. What they would hear is that consumers desperately want an independent press.

The additional and frequent hearings are important because of what will be lost if cross-ownership bans are removed, said Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, an organization that works on communications policy.

"If we lose it we are just going to see newsrooms eviscerated ... It is a huge blow to the journalism trade," he said.

That is how consolidation works. Buy a television station, and a newspaper in the same market. Then cut staff when the two newsrooms are smooched together. The industry uses jargon such as "leveraging platforms" for "enhanced efficiencies" to explain away what is really happening. News-gathering operations are being severely cut to make a profit so a large public or leveraged company can meet Wall Street's expectations.

It is not too late to save the press. Readers and journalists should attend the Seattle hearing, which is free, and tell the FCC to ensure that an independent press remains vital to democracy and consumer choice.

The commissioners are holding an unofficial FCC hearing at 6 p.m. next Thursday in the Seattle Downtown Library. The hearing is in part sponsored by The Seattle Times. The commissioners will open the hearing with some comments and then take questions or hear concerns from the audience.

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For more information about ownership and communications policy, go to:

http://www.freepress.net/
http://www.fcc.gov/
http://www.reclaimthemedia.org/
http://www.stopbigmedia.com/

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2003444938_ryan24.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey