Democracy, the press at a critical juncture

[Seattle Times editorial]

American democracy is suffering. The natural strain on our political system after more than two centuries is accelerating with the purposeful weakening of the press.

This erosion has been fueled in recent decades by politically calculated legislation, and regulatory agencies not regulating. Political aggression coupled with bureaucratic acceptance has led to the massive consolidation of American and global media.

The Federal Communications Commission can realign democracy with the Founders' vision by acting in the public's interest on a number of issues, such as network neutrality, cross-ownership and broadband. If the FCC missteps, the United States is in danger of losing its independent news organizations.

The press — newspapers, radio, television and magazines — plays a role in democracy every bit as important as Congress, the executive branch and the judiciary. That watchdog role is in danger now that newspapers, which are the driving force behind most original reporting, are being strained by consolidation.

Why should Americans care who owns the press?

Because a democracy ceases to be a political system that promotes liberty when the press is muzzled.

Ownership still matters. The corporatization of news has laid bare how woefully unwilling strictly market-driven conglomerates are to fielding aggressive news organizations with a public-service mission.

Citizens should look at the press as part of democracy's structure. When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that a national discussion is needed about the press, its function, who owns it, and what can be done to ensure it stays vital and independent.

The courts and the FCC have historically recognized the importance of the press and its relation to democracy. Rulings such as the Associated Press v. United States in 1945 and New York Times Co. v. Sullivan in 1964 demonstrated the court's position. These rulings are now part of a sentimental past.

In 2003, the FCC voted to loosen the rules governing cross-ownership so that one company could own a newspaper, three television stations, eight radio stations and an Internet service provider in the same market. The commission bucked millions of public comments against such an undemocratic arrangement.

Thankfully, the courts put the FCC's plan on hold. Unfortunately, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals did not completely block the new rules. The court sent the rules back to the FCC to be reworked. Lifting the ban is still a possibility. Even though the FCC has a new chairman since the 2003 debacle, the majority Republican commission has indicated it likes the idea of big media as a complement to big government.

The government's penchant for bigness is obvious. Radio has been consolidated to minuscule numbers of owners who favor generic play lists. Adding to the corrosion of American creativity is the loss of radio news — too expensive for the big companies. The gutting of local radio has also blocked minorities and women from the most accessible entry point to media ownership.

Television news has devolved into a cliché. Weather, crime and car accidents fill airspace that was once the domain of substantive reports from city hall and the capitol. The trends have not been much kinder to newspapers. The majority of readers need a score card to keep track of which corporation owns their newspaper.

The press is going through a radical transformation. The old way of doing business is dead. Press opponents know this, and are spending a lot of money in Washington to transform the news into a commodity every bit as purchasable, and salable, as toilet paper.

The federal government has largely failed to protect an independent press. Instead, policies have been tailored for big corporations that are blindly beholden to the market, and increased quarterly profits.

Democracy does not simply happen. It requires nurturing. It needs the public to be aware of assaults against it, small and large. The courts must rebuff debilitating press laws, and politicians should champion media reform.

It is not too late. American democracy and the press are at a critical juncture. What started as a boisterous grand experiment powered by the pen, has become background noise to American life. Democracy's frequency has to be retuned for all to hear.

The press — its state, and how it can be saved — is the right place to begin the discussion.

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/editorialsopinion/2003874214_demoed09.html.

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