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How Close Is Rupert Murdoch to Owning the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune?

The FCC may weaken the exact rule needed to allow Murdoch this media ownership.
 
 
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In October, the L.A. Times revealed that Murdoch had his eye on acquiring both the L.A. Timesand the Chicago Tribunefrom the Tribune Co.As the Tribune Co. emerges from bankruptcy, Murdoch’s News Corp. executives held talks with the company’s debt holders about acquiring the major papers.

So what’s the Federal Communications Commission to do?

Apparently, propose an order that weakens the exact rule that would have stood in the way of Murdoch’s desired acquisition. For 30 years, the FCC’s Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership rule has prevented a single company from owning both a daily newspaper and a TV or radio station in the same city to ensure media diversity.  And since Murdoch owned two Fox stations in both L.A. and Chicago, this rule would have prevented him from acquiring the cities’ major dailies.

But two weeks ago, FCC sources leaked that the chairman, Julius Genachowski, sent around an order that would weaken this rule. This would allow one company to own a major daily newspaper, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in one city.

The spokesman for the commission said that the purpose of the proposal is “to streamline and modernize media ownership rules, including eliminating outdated prohibitions on newspaper-radio and TV-radio cross-ownership.”

Those in favor of media consolidation argue that broadcast stations could save newspapers that are struggling financially.

However, Josh Stearns, the journalism and public media campaign director for FreePress, an organization working to reform the media and promote public interest, said that although newspapers and TV stations aren’t doing as well as they had been historically, they are still making profits.

He said, “People are saying, ‘We need to put newspapers and television stations together so we can save the journalism that’s happening there.’ When in reality, we know that consolidation leads to job losses and less local news.”

In fact, the FCC has still failed to evaluate the impact media consolidation has on diversity. Yet, their own research recently finds that women own less than seven percent of TV broadcast and commercial radio stations, while minorities own only five percent of TV stations and 8 percent of radio stations.

Stearns said that the FCC has been so focused on broadband and wireless issues, it’s as if broadcast issues don’t matter anymore.  

“In reality, we have about 80 percent of America that still relies on broadcast TV … to get all their news and information,” he said. “So this is still a critical source of information for the vast majority of America.”

FreePress is therefore currently working on putting pressure on the FCC as well as asking people to take action and sign their petition. The ACLU, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the National Organization for Women and others have also joined in the fight.

“The problem that we’re facing is that the FCC is doing this all in secret,” Stearns said. “They haven’t put this on the agenda for a public vote yet. And they have the power to vote on this behind closed doors, which we’re afraid they’re going to do.”

On Friday, 10 U.S. Senators wrote to the FCC, urging the commission to not proceed with its proposal until they provide evidence that it will not affect media diversity.

The senators wrote:

We strongly believe that maintaining robust diversity of media ownership is fundamental to preserving the strength of our democracy. …When ownership of local television and radio stations is concentrated in too few hands, diversity is threatened, and when programmining decisions are made by large media  companies from hundreds of miles away, coverage of local news can become either diluted or neglected.

This letter comes after Sen. Maria Cantwell sent the FCC a letter on Thursday.

In it, she wrote:

FCC rules are supposed to serve the public interest. However, this proposed draft order appears to only serve the interest of large media companies that have made bad business decisions. There is no reason to do this. While it may be good for Wall Street, it is not good for Main Street.

Stearns noted that the chief lobbyist for Fox News and Murdoch were at the FCC two days ago lobbying for an even further relaxation of the rules. He said media corporations have lately held sway over the FCC.

Unfortunately, in recent years it’s become an agency that’s been really captured by the industry it’s supposed to be regulating. So we’ve seen over and over again these compromises happen that will really benefit big companies over the public interest.

Genachowski’s proposal is nearly identical to proposals FreePress fought against in 2003 and 2007. Barack Obama and Joe Biden were among the senators who blasted the FCC for their attempts at media consolidation. According to Stearns, Genachowski is Obama’s old law school friend, which “makes this all the more strange.” Although Obama has continuously spoken out against weakening of media ownership rules, even promising a push for media diversity during his 2008 campaign, he has remained silent on the FCC’s current proposal.

Stearns said it’s important that the FCC pushes for diverse ownership and localism, in which journalists keep a close watch on local politicians as well as explain how federal politicians and their policies are affecting the local community.

“All politics is local,” he said. “We need local journalists and local media to understand the communities that they’re working within. We can’t have absentee landlords over the public airwaves who don’t know their communities, who aren’t in touch with the people they’re serving and have no idea what issues are confronting people on a day-to-day basis.”

After all, if journalists don’t truly understand what’s going on in the community, members of the community will have a hard time understanding what’s going on as well. And the less people are informed, the less likely they are to get involved and fight for a more democratic society.

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.