Media Politics: The Urge to Merge and Converge

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by Jonathan Lawson

Few observers of 2000' s protracted walkout by Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer workers could have imagined an issue that would bring together the union representing the papers' employees, and Times owner Frank Blethen, as comrades in struggle. But the deregulatory fervor gripping DC policymakers has created just such a situation, as Blethen and the unions move to preserve an FCC rule prohibiting single companies owning both broadcast and print media in the same market.

The cross-ownership ban, dating from 1975, protects media diversity by ensuring that no single voice can control all media outlets in a single community. Big media owners have shown little affection for this rule, thirsting for megamergers which would allow single newsrooms to churn out local content for both broadcast and print--"convergence," in industry lingo--or to eliminate local newsrooms altogether.

Accordingly, business-friendly FCC Chairman Michael Powell wants to deregulate the ban out of existence. On September 13 last year, Powell announced his intention to "review" the rule. The issue may soon come to a head; on June 4, influential House Republican Billy Tauzin and Democrat Fred Upton publicly urged Powell to move ahead with a repeal.

Meanwhile, The Newspaper Guild and its parent union, Communications Workers of America, are ready for the fight. This spring the union commissioned a study from the Economic Policy Institute detailing the likely effects of cross-ownership, and the AFL-CIO, prompted by several member unions, issued a strong condemnation of the proposed deregulation.

The unions appear to have good cause for alarm. Two years ago the government of Canada struck down its own ban on cross-ownership, and the resulting wave of megamergers provides a case study for US policymakers. Within a year of the change, television giant CanWest Global had gobbled up 80% of all daily newspapers across Canada. Even after selling off pieces to cover debts, CanWest had amassed what TNG-Canada president Arnold Amber called "a media empire unparalleled in the western world."

The effects of such monopolization were quickly catalogued by union representatives in the affected workplaces, including layoffs, increased demands on existing staff and attacks on diversity and journalistic standards. One widely-criticized change has been CanWest's introduction of conservative "national editorials" which all local papers are required to publish.

In his own strong support of the cross-ownership ban, Frank Blethen is swimming hard against corporate trends. In March, Blethen railed against the proposed deregulation, calling this "a dangerous moment for democracy" and underscoring that allowing cross-ownership would benefit financial bottom lines only at the expense of journalistic ideals and the public good.

Powel and corporate media lobbies claim that dropping the ban will lead to increased competition, even though the Canadian precedent demonstrates that deregulation will bring instead extreme consolidation. The fact that this piece of doublespeak (fewer competitors=greater competition) can be presented with a straight face shows not only the FCC���s condition of servitude to big business, but also the owners' conviction that nobody - not the Congress, and certainly not the public - is paying attention. Since the corporate beneficiaries of deregulation are also in a position to decide what policy issues make the news, advocates of press freedom and media diversity have their work cut out for them.

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