FCC vs. the free press

by Beacon Staff • January 30, 2008

Last month, while the students and faculty of Emerson College were just about ready for a much-needed mental respite, the Federal Communications Commission approved steps which would deregulate cross-media ownership. Unfortunately, this ruling went rather unnoticed in the hysteria of the holiday season.

On Dec. 18, 2007, the FCC declared that "the blanket ban on newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership was no longer in the public interest." According to the FCC, it is now in the "public interest" for one company to set a news agenda for a given market across multiple platforms.

Democratic Commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein-both of whom appeared at Emerson's timely forum on media consolidation last October-found themselves in the minority of a three-to-two vote, which broke along partisan lines.

"We are marking not just a lost opportunity," said Commissioner Copps in his statement of dissent, "but the allowance of new rules that head media democracy in exactly the wrong direction."

Prior to Dec. 18, no newspaper was permitted to own any other type of media. The new regulations "allow a newspaper to own one television station or one radio station in the 20 largest markets, subject to strict criteria and limitations."

In order for a single newspaper to successfully acquire a television station in the top 20 markets, two provisions must be met: first, eight independent media voices (which includes T.V. and newspapers) must remain in the market; second, the television station involved in the merger may not be one of the top four stations in the market.

While the proposal targets just the top 20 markets, a broadcast station in any other market nationwide can be purchased by a newspaper so long as the station meets FCC requirements for being a "failed" outlet, and so long as it produces at least seven hours of local news per week.

"In reality, under this proposal a newspaper could buy any TV station in a city, no matter how large," said Commissioner Adelstein in his statement.

Supporters of the ruling believe newspaper advertising revenue has fallen so far that the only way to make up for lost profit is through expansion into other media, such as television or radio.

But although newspaper circulation may indeed be down, the industry is not on its way to obsolescence. As a matter of fact, the business has long been a moneymaker compared to other industries.

In late 2006, Time magazine noted in the article "Extra: Newspapers Aren't Dead" that the average profit margin for newspaper companies was "nearly double that of the average FORTUNE 500 outfit." The only two consumer industries ahead of newspapers were pharmaceuticals and commercial banks.

The newspaper industry is not as dead as some people would have us think; owners just want more control and more profit.

Already, much of the information we receive on a daily basis is controlled by those who would end up benefitting from this FCC ruling. Newspapers owned by large corporations will now be able to purchase stations under duress.

This may serve as a short-term remedy for problems some people believe the newspaper industry is facing. However, it also sets the stage for odious future issues.

A narrowing of news priorities will surely follow media consolidation. Enabling a tiny corporate clique to set the agenda for all major media is simply not the recipe for promoting a healthy democratic dialogue.

Honest and accurate reporting depends upon the maintenance of diverse and unaffiliated news organizations. By centralizing gathering and analysis into the clutches of companies under the same ultimate control, we risk obscuring the truth, or even ignoring it all together.