A Congressional Gift to Media Biz

On June 2, the Federal Communications Commission will announce new policies on U.S. media ownership.

The shame is that nobody is telling the public what these new policies mean. That might be because so many of the changes are bad ideas or not in the public interest. Here are some lowlights:

Current safeguards limiting the number of TV stations a single company can own both locally and nationally are expected to be weakened.

The big four commercial TV networks will be allowed to buy more stations, and broadcasters will likely be able to operate two or even three stations in a community (known in the trade as "duopolies" and "triopolies").

A long-standing rule that currently prevents a single owner from controlling both a community's major daily and a TV station may be overturned.

The New York Times Co. is just one of the major media firms that have asked the FCC to make a major policy change. Under chairman Michael Powell and his Republican majority, the Times Co. has found a sympathetic ally in its quest for "deregulation." In the last few weeks, some of the industry's most powerful CEOs have personally lobbied the FCC, including Viacom's Mel Karmazin, NBC's Robert Wright, and Fox's Rupert Murdoch. They have been joined by a long list of other well-connected media lobbyists, representing Belo, Tribune and the Newspaper Association of America.

Changes these companies are proposing would help further transform the U.S. media landscape, affecting journalism and TV programming. There would be even fewer owners of TV stations, cable systems, and newspapers. Yet for the most part, the media industry has failed to inform the public about what the implications of such changes might be, let alone how their own company stands to benefit from such a decision.

The debate over media ownership policy could (and should) fill up a significant part of the front page of this and other papers. But what's most distressing is the relative paucity of such coverage. Television -- especially the main network newscasts -- has all but ignored the issue.

The story of how the U.S. media world is being transformed as it proceeds with a transition to a largely digital system is linked with the current efforts at the FCC to end ownership limits. Companies want to position themselves to be media megagiants, with clout over more stations, cable channels, and newspapers (what the industry calls adding additional "platforms").

Yet the failure to report effectively on the implications of what the media companies are doing, both in Washington and in the marketplace, is an example of what's alarming about consolidation of media outlets into fewer and fewer hands. As media companies grow larger, with more financial links to other interests, what will happen to the critical watchdog role of news media? Specifically, in the digital age, which media entities with the power to inform the country will be able to serve as a check on the power and influence of their peers?

One example is the New York Times. Last year, the Times Corp. invested $100 million in Discovery Communications, making it a 50 percent owner of what is now known as the Discovery Times Channel. But the Times investment now makes it a partner with Discovery's owners, including Cox, Liberty Media, and Advance Newhouse. Yet with the exception of a single 367-word story last April, readers might not realize that the paper's owners have made a significant decision to expand into cable programming (including such ventures as the New England Sports Network). They are likely also unaware of the Times' new relationship with powerful cable TV interests.

Nor has the paper ever informed readers about the consequences of the Times Co.'s December 2001 filing at the FCC asking it to dismantle the policy on broadcast and newspaper cross-ownership. The Times isn't alone in this omission. In mid-April, the Belo Corp. wrote to FCC Chairman Powell that it was now advocating a new policy that would permit greater consolidation. Yet its flagship Dallas Morning-News didn't report on it.

The country is at a crossroads on media ownership. At stake ultimately are the First Amendment rights of the public to a system that promotes free speech and serves as a mechanism of private and public accountability. The media industry should use the next month to inform the country fully about the consequences of ownership changes, and what they may mean for democracy.

Jeff Chester is the executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy.

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