What the New York Times Won't Tell You

On Dec. 3, 2001, the New York Times Co., along with many other major newspaper and broadcasting companies, filed voluminous documents at the Federal Communications Commission. The Times Co. strongly urged the FCC to abandon the quarter-century old safeguard that prevents a company from owning both a newspaper and a broadcast outlet in the same community. Broadcast networks urged that rules restricting the number of TV stations that one network can operate be scuttled as well. These filings are currently being reviewed by the FCC as part of its most significant proposed overhaul of the ownership policies that shape the US media marketplace.

The Times has not yet disclosed in its pages what its corporate FCC filing is asking for -- or what it might mean for the public -- including the future of journalism. Nor have the broadcast networks' newscasts reported the demands of their corporate parents. At stake in these proposed changes are the number of media outlets a single company can own both at the local and national level, including the cross-ownership of papers and TV stations that the Times Co. and other media conglomerates covet.

This high-stakes game for the control of media properties involves a who's who of American media power that includes Cox, Gannett, Tribune, GE/NBC, Disney/ABC. Both Rupert Murdoch of Fox/News Corp. and Mel Karmazin of Viacom/CBS have recently made the rounds at the FCC, with Karmazin visiting Washington twice in February alone.

The press has paid scant attention to the handful of public hearings initiated by FCC Commissioner Michael Copps -- the agency's principal dissenter on media deregulation. At the New York City hearing held in January at Columbia University, one lone TV camera from the PBS show Now with Bill Moyers was on hand to report on the event.

Now that FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said that he wants to wrap up a decision on the ownership rules by May, it is more critical than ever that the public be better informed about the consequences of these proposed changes.

The Times Co. filing is a good example of the kind of arguments and claims that media companies are making to the FCC, many of which will affect viewers and listeners. In its December 2001 filing, for example, the Times told the FCC that "in light of today's great diversity of media voices in virtually all communities, no legitimate public purpose continues to be served by the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule."

It claimed that in the eight markets where it has TV stations, "there is a plethora of competing local media voices."

The laundry list of media properties provided to illustrate such alleged diversity includes weekly papers, religious broadcasters, AM stations and PBS. The Times makes no distinction among the outlets, as if owning a small weekly paper is the equivalent of owning both a daily paper and TV station. This is an intellectual ploy one might expect from corporate lawyers, but one that the paper's editors would not likely accept from their reporters.

Finally, the Times Co. promises that the public will benefit from "efficiencies" of cross-ownership, resulting in "greater, not less, local diversity of news and information."

But shouldn't their readers and viewers be informed about the Times' plans to own additional media outlets? Or be engaged in a serious debate about the consequences of more cross-ownership and media concentration?

The very lack of self-coverage by these media companies illustrates one of the principal concerns of those who worry about what lifting many of the remaining ownership rules will mean for democracy. It is disturbing and potentially dangerous. For if the FCC -- as many predict -- sweeps away rules that restrict ownership, what will the impact be on the traditional watchdog role of the press? Will their ability to act as a check on private and public power be further weakened as they grow larger, with increasingly diverse interests other than news and public affairs?

The recent track record of the media covering itself has not been good.

For example, ABC News did not report that during the merger of AOL and Time Warner, the Walt Disney Company played a leading role in lobbying regulators to place some limitations on the merger. Nor did NBC report on the active lobbying efforts of its business partner to promote what was then the biggest media merger in US history. All of this lobbying by the Washington, DC-based lobbying offices of the networks was widely known to the political community there -- and thus shouldn't have been a secret to the bureau chiefs and others.

Reporters who cover the media and the current FCC proceeding feel a strong, chilly wind coming from their managers. As one reporter (who prefers to remain unnamed) whose parent company is lobbying to overturn one of the key rules told me, many reporters understand that their bosses have a stake in the outcome of the debate and that is putting a damper on the depth of coverage.

It's not just on media ownership that the press overlooks its potential corporate conflict of interest. Issues affecting Internet access, spectrum management and advertising are often covered without acknowledging how the parent company might be involved. When covering the recent controversy over the role that advertising might play in encouraging overweight children, for example, TV coverage conveniently ignored the potentially negative impact of commercials appearing in children's programs on their own networks.

Given the short timetable for the ruling, the press needs to begin aggressively reporting on the media ownership debate. A number of questions need to be asked: What will happen to resources for reporting when a single owner can combine the news departments of a TV station and newspaper? How will the debt taken on by these media companies to finance their acquisitions of additional "delivery platforms" affect news budgets?

We have already received new warning signs about the quality of our news media environment and its relationship to ownership from independent groups like the Project for Excellence in Journalism. There are plenty of experts available -- such as "Media Monopoly" author Ben Bagdikian or Writers Guild president Vicki Riskin -- who can provide reporters with details about the negative impact of concentration on journalism and entertainment.

We also have a unique opportunity now to re-envision our media environment so that it can serve both community and commerce in the digital age. There could be channels and online services that place civic, educational and cultural discourse within the center of our media system, not just on the margins.

But without a serious debate over what the commercial media have in mind for the future of TV and the online media, including what options and policies might be available to the public, our media future may sadly be more of a reflection of our consolidated media past.

Jeffrey Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (www.democraticmedia.org).

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