SOLOMON: When Coverage of Media Power Gets Hazy

Some people claim that large news outlets in the United States are refusing to acknowledge the dangers of centralized media ownership. But that's not quite true.In mid-March, a prominent New York Times article warned that "the lines between information and business are becoming increasingly blurred." The news story was blunt: "The concentration of power in the hands of a relative few -- along with the linking of big money, big media and government power -- has raised searching questions."The newspaper reported that "critics say some media barons are out to protect their business interests and unfairly influence people."Could it be that the New York Times is allowing its reporters to cover -- without fear or favor -- the massive consolidation of media control in this country?Well, not exactly. The article quoted above was about news media in Russia.Realists should not expect the Times to raise "searching questions" about its own inordinate power, which continues to grow.In 1993, the New York Times Co. bought one of the nation's few independent big-city dailies left, The Boston Globe. Now the company is greatly expanding daily delivery of the Times to newsstands and doorsteps all over the United States.While some media firms rack up huge profits, others are merging or folding. The result is a dwindling number of media authorities who decide what news and opinions can reach the general public.Fresh technologies might provide more space for media diversity. For instance, we've heard a lot lately about digital "high definition" television. But the federal government is giving away digital frequencies to corporate broadcasters.In theory, the conventional airwaves -- and the new digital frequencies -- belong to the American public. In practice, these resources are in the pockets of those who could be described as "a relative few."On March 17 -- the day after publication of its alarming news story about media autocracy in Russia -- the Times ran an editorial blithely endorsing the trend toward media autocracy here at home.The Times encouraged the Federal Communications Commission to shower the broadcasting industry with free digital licenses. Meanwhile, a front-page Wall Street Journal report likened the digital TV spectrum to a "triple-layered banana split Uncle Sam is about to give the nation's broadcasters."The Journal noted that "broadcasters would pay dearly to get those airwaves if they had to; estimates put their value at $20 billion to $50 billion. But the government is just days away from handing them over free of charge -- and is asking for nothing in return."Such transactions give new meaning to the term "the free market."These giveaways are enriching outfits like the New York Times Co., a firm with annual revenues of $2.6 billion -- and broadcast holdings that include several TV stations.Adulation of "the free market" may be the closest thing to an official religion in this country. But, as usual with blind faith, the dominant theology gets lots of backing from profiteers.These days, media worship of "the free market" is profuse and never-ending. If you own the pulpits, you have quite a lot of say about what's preached -- and assumed -- on a daily basis. And heretics can rarely get a few words in edgewise.That has been the case in recent media accounts of efforts to merge two office-supply chains. Many news stories echoed the full-page ads by Staples and Office Depot touting the benefits of a single superchain.The Center for Study of Responsive Law analyzed the reporting in four key newspapers -- the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. The center found heavy reliance on statements from Staples and Office Depot, "even though the claims made by these parties to the merger ... were often wholly unsubstantiated."What's more, "when they sought 'independent' comment, the major newspapers turned overwhelmingly to Wall Street analysts, many of whom have major financial stakes in the merger." Consumer advocates and specialists in antitrust law got short shrift.In this merger-friendly atmosphere, what are the chances that big national news outlets will really scrutinize the anti- democratic effects of media consolidation in the United States? Somewhere between slim and zero.It's far more likely that critical coverage of this disturbing U.S. media trend will appear in Russian newspapers.

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