An open letter to Kevin Martin

by Michael R. Fancher, Seattle Times

An open letter to Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission:

I hadn't planned to write about the FCC hearing in Seattle on Friday night, but something you said surprised and troubled me. Your comment was in response to remarks about my boss, Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times. Frank's name was invoked by two of your fellow commissioners and several other speakers who oppose your desire to relax restrictions on how many media outlets a single company can own in a market.

"Frank Blethen — what can I say — he's got the public interest in his bones and no one — and I mean no one — has done more than Frank to spread the word and to right the wrongs inflicted by the media consolidation frenzy of the past decade," said Commissioner Michael Copps.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein invoked Frank's name to rouse the crowd, almost all of whom want more regulation of big media, not less. "For those who say media ownership does not matter, I say look at one man from Seattle: Frank Blethen ...

"If we let local voices like Frank Blethen's get bought up by voracious media giants looking to swallow up even more local outlets, voices like his will be snuffed out forever."

Then he really got the 800 or more people going.

"Do you want big out-of-state companies to buy your newspapers and TV stations combined?"

Nooooo!

"Are you satisfied with your local media today?"

Nooooo!

"Do you think more consolidation is the answer?"

Nooooo!

You kept your cool, Mr. Chairman, even when your approach to the microphone was greeted with boos and some hostile shouts. Rhetoric is easy, you said, but decision-making is hard.

As for Frank Blethen, you acknowledged that he has been a vocal proponent of ownership limits but added that he is in the minority among publishers. Unlike Frank, most publishers favor cross-ownership — one company being allowed to own a newspaper and television or radio station in a single city.

You said other publishers have told the commission they are being forced to cut their newsrooms and will have to cut more unless they have opportunities to diversify their companies through cross-ownership. That's the comment that jarred me.

Can you possibly think that allowing cross-ownership and further media consolidation will be good for newsrooms, journalists and communities? That ever bigger media will put public service above profits?

The massive disinvestment that has been taking place in American journalism in recent years has been done to maintain relatively high profit margins. It has damaged the ability of the press to do its job.

As early as 2004, the Project for Excellence in Journalism said one major trend was: "Those who would manipulate the press and public appear to be gaining leverage over the journalists who cover them."

If you haven't done so, you should read the speech John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, gave to the American Society of Newspaper Editors last year.

"There was a time, some of you may recall, when owners were identifiable human beings ... Unfortunately, the old owners are gone," he said. Over the past 40 years, those owners sold their papers to corporations and now the power is migrating from the corporations to investment-fund managers.

"Under the old local owners, a newspaper's capacity for making money was only part of its value. Today, it is everything. Gone is the notion that a newspaper should lead, that it has an obligation to its community, that it is beholden to the public."

What do the current owners want from the newspapers? "The answer could not be simpler: Money. That's it."

That's the reality, and the people at the hearing Friday night know it. I'll confess I didn't stay to hear the last speeches, but the first 4 ½ hours of testimony couldn't have been more resoundingly against media consolidation.

One of the most persuasive statements came from Elizabeth Blanks Hindman of the Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University. She listed several ways in which the FCC's own studies support tighter restrictions on media ownership: "Your own studies show that the current rules, much less the proposed rules, do not serve the public interest."

The FCC's mandate is to promote competition, diversity and localism in media. More concentration of ownership could have catastrophic consequences in all of those areas and for democracy itself.

You probably assume I'm just doing my boss' bidding here, so I should tell you the rest of the story. When Frank first started talking publicly about the threat of media consolidation about 20 years ago, I told him he was tilting at windmills. Nothing I said dissuaded him.

When Frank started opposing cross-ownership, I said we should be thinking about acquiring a TV station, rather than fighting to keep rules in place that would prohibit that. Frank figured it might be good for The Times if it could own a TV station but it would be bad for the community and bad for democracy. He chose principle over pragmatism.

When you and the majority of FCC commissioners acted to ease ownership rules a few years back, Frank fired up the opposition. I again told him it was a lost cause.

I was wrong. The people, the courts and the Congress thwarted the commission.

I have come to agree that media consolidation is, in fact, a threat to democracy. The evidence is inescapable.

What surprises me is how clearly the people get it. On the left and on the right, they know that bigger media aren't in their best interest. That's what people from all walks of life told you Friday night.

I heard them. I hope you did, too.

article originally published at .

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