Media Politics: Hearst's Tentacle Swats Times, Ownership Rules

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by Jonathan Lawson

The gloves are coming off in the fight between the Hearst Corporation, owner of the Post-Intelligencer, and Seattle Times majority owner Frank Blethen. The conflict concerns the Joint Operating Agreement which links the two papers' non-editorial divisions and gives Seattle the increasingly rare distinction of having two major daily papers.

For months, Blethen has been dropping hints that he would move to end the two decades-old agreement, citing a clause allowing for termination discussions following three years of losses for either paper. Last weekend the Times announced such losses, apparently setting the stage for an attempt to end the JOA; meanwhile, Hearst annnounced plans to sue Blethen to protect the JOA.

Both Blethen and the Hearst Corporation assume, not without cause, that the FCC is about to usher in a new era of media industry consolidation--and that only one Seattle paper is destined to survive. Each owner accuses the other of trying to kill its competitor.

Blethen's save-our-skin strategy runs the risk of making his vocal opposition to media ownership deregulation appear to have been motivated at least as much by selfish business concerns than by high-minded concern for democracy and the need for diverse news sources. For one thing, the JOA battle will end the Newspaper Guild's simpatico relationship with Blethen, based on their collaborative opposition to FCC deregulation.

Blethen is likely to continue to speak out on the issue, at least through June 2, the date FCC Chairman Michael Powell has announced that he will have the five-member Commission vote on his proposed changes to the ownership rules, disclosing the changes to Congress and the public only after the vote has taken place. (This is, of course, over the objections of tens of thousands of citizens, local and regional governments, community groups, media owners, national labor unions and a growing list of Congressmen and Senators including Jay Inslee, Jim McDermott, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.)

For its part, the Post-Intelligencer remained mum on the ownership issue until last week; the local tentacle of the Hearst Corporation finally broke its silence with an April 23 editorial: "Rewrite FCC rules on cross-ownership."

It's unclear what, if anything, the timing of the editorial has to do with the JOA dustup. The tone gives the impression that the P-I editorial board is taking sides in the issue only with great reluctance. "We're not supposed to talk about this subject," the piece began, "It's bad form."
The P-I explains that (unlike the Times) they haven't editorialized on the issue of media consolidation until now because "our readers might believe our business interests were overriding our editorial judgment."

Well, yes, they certainly might. Behind the scenes, the Hearst Corporation has been anything but silent on the issue, lobbying the FCC repeatedly since 1998 to toss out the rule prohibiting local newspaper-broadcast cross ownership. In January 2003, Hearst and its subsidiary Hearst-Argyle Television filed separate, lengthy comments with the FCC; both comments inhabited a strange corporate media dreamland in which 'more concentrated ownership' means 'more media diversity,' freedom is slavery, and Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

The most curious thing about the P-I editorial was its lack of substance, offering none of Hearst's actual arguments favoring consolidation, instead simply complaining that discussion of the issue had been too focused on the "notion that democracy is at risk." For the Hearst Corporation, democracy and public debate are simply irrelevant to this issue.

It's not hard to understand why proponents of deregulation are disinterested in creating public debate; they have nothing to gain from such scrutiny, and much to lose. The P-I's scant journalistic coverage of media ownership reform has mostly been confined to its business pages (as has that of the Times). One exception is an article featured in the P-I's local section a few days after their editorial���leading with a Chairman Powell's statement that striking down the cross-ownership ban will mean���you guessed it���more and better news programming.

It's enough to make one suspect that their business interests were affecting their editorial judgement.
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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey