At stake: diverse media and open government

by Michael R. Fancher, Seattle Times

Wake up, people!

No, this isn't a commercial for the new diet soft drink with ginseng and extra caffeine. It's a call to pay close attention to what's happening in the nexus of government and media. Important developments are afoot at the federal, state and local levels. Nationally, the hot news last week was the head of the Federal Communications Commission again trying to fast-track new rules allowing greater concentration of media ownership. This is a big deal, with potential local ramifications.

In 2003, the FCC tried to ease restrictions on how many television stations a company can own in a single market. It would also have allowed "cross-ownership" of both television stations and a newspaper in the same market.

Critics feared the changes would cause far less diversity of media ownership and competing voices within a community. A single firm could dominate broadcast and print, giving large media conglomerates a stranglehold to squeeze out local owners.

Public pressure, congressional action and a court ruling combined to thwart the move, in part because the FCC had almost no public process before voting to ease the restrictions. To avoid that criticism this time, the FCC has held a handful of hearings, and its chairman, Kevin Martin, has proposed two more meetings — in Washington, D.C., and Seattle.

News reports indicated Martin wants new rules spelled out and a vote by the FCC's five commissioners before the end of the year. This train is moving, although some members of Congress are trying to slow it.

I'm surprised that Martin is willing to have an intermediate stop in Seattle, where there is strident opposition to media consolidation. Two FCC commissioners who oppose the rule changes, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, held their own unofficial hearing here last December. It was attended by more than 400 people, most of them against the changes.

Those who spoke in opposition included U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, from the left; radio commentator and former Republican governor nominee John Carlson from the right, and yours truly from somewhere in the middle.

If there is another hearing here, it should be a lively affair worthy of your attention.

At the state level, there was good and bad news last week concerning open government. At the head of my good list is an effort by the Washington Coalition for Open Government to get candidates to pledge "to support the public's right to know at every opportunity." WCOG's Web site, www.washingtoncog.org, has a list of candidates throughout the state who have signed the pledge.

Just click on the "open government pledge" link under government. You'll find the full pledge statement and the candidate list sorted in various ways. There is also this disclaimer: "Inclusion in this list does not imply endorsement by the coalition, but we appreciate the commitment each of these candidates has made to uphold the people's right to open government."

(In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I'm the vice president of the nonpartisan coalition, whose mission "is to represent the public in matters where open government issues are raised, are threatened, or deserve broader exposure.")

In the bad-news category last week was a story in The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. It said state health-department officials have concluded that serious mistakes made by individual hospitals will no longer be reported to the public.

The story said the officials have interpreted a 2006 law to mean that information about mistakes should be released only "in the aggregate and for geographies large enough to prevent identification of the hospitals where the mistakes occurred."

That ruling is a serious blow to openness and accountability, and it will almost certainly be challenged. In fact, The Spokesman-Review story said Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, who worked to make the reports public, will contest the health department's interpretation of the 2006 law. That, too, will be worth following.

"Digital Democracy"

Finally, at the local level, check out "Digital Democracy" next week at www.seattletimes.com. It's our online audio and video forum with citizens asking questions of candidates for Seattle School Board and City Council. I think you'll find it a fun and interesting way to help you get face-to-face with those who want your vote.

All of these developments are a wake-up call about the changing media landscape. How these ownership, economic, access and technological issues play out will determine whether the press can continue its historic public-service mission.

In the end, it's about your ability to be self-governing.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2003964947_fancher20.html.

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