Dec 22, 2007

FCC ownership ruling will hurt Michigan

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently overturned a 32-year-old ban aimed at doing away with media monopolies and ensuring there is a diversity of voices on the airwaves and in print

The administrative ruling will let owners of a TV or radio station buy a newspaper, or vice versa, in the nation's 20 largest media markets. The ban put in place in 1975 barred a single company from owning a TV station and newspaper in the same market. Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin was joined by his two fellow Republican on the commission in favor of the proposal, and the commission's two Democrats voted against it.

Before the ink is even dry on this new rule it will allow waivers for six new newspaper-broadcast combinations and 36 grand fathered stations.

The Detroit News, owned by Denver-based Media News Group – one of the largest newspaper companies in the United States – immediately came out with an editorial favoring the move. The editorial did point out that its parent company did own a TV station, but the editorial skirted the issue of the problems with the consolidation of all of the news outlets into one giant voice. Detroit is the 11th largest media market in the country, and this ruling will apply to Detroit. The gist of the editorial is that because of technology like blogs and other new information sources, “there's no way a company can control the flow of news and entertainment by owning a newspaper and TV station in the same market.”

That may be good news for blogs like the Michigan Messenger, but if it will be good for traditional journalism and the general public remains to be seen.

Critics like the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) - a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank - allowing more media consolidation will diminish local newsgathering. Proponents of the new rule say allowing cross-ownership may help to forestall the erosion in local news coverage by enabling companies to share newsgathering costs across media platforms.

But it ignores the danger of consolidating all the media voices into something owned by a few companies. Newspapers are a perfect example, and there are few independent newspapers anymore. Take the Detroit News, for example. Their parent company owns and operates 57 daily newspapers in 12 states with combined daily and Sunday circulation of approximately 2.6 million and 2.9 million, respectively, and they are proud to tell you those facts on their web site. Just recently in 2005 the News was purchased by from giant newspaper chain Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S. that publishes 85 daily newspapers, including USA TODAY. After the smoke had cleared, Gannett walked away with ownership of the Detroit Free Press and the bulk of metro Detroit suburban weekly newspapers known as the Observer and Eccentrics.

During the 1920s more than 500 cities and towns had two or more competing newspapers - including about 100 cities that had three or more - today only about a half dozen communities have a least two newspapers, and those tend to operate under joint agreements allowed under the Newspaper Preservation Act, like the News and Free Press in Michigan under the Joint Operating Agreement (JOA).

This consolidation means there are less reporters and less competition. According to the EPI, since 1975 the number of media outlets has indeed increased, but at the same time ownership has become more concentrated. Today there is simply less diversity of opinion and less diversity of news sources.

This corporate takeover of newspapers means solid reporting, independence and integrity are taking a backset to profit and pleasing the shareholders. Media conglomerates are stressing profit maximization over concerns of localism and diversity, according to the EPI.

The situation is not much different in TV and radio where the airwaves are provided free by the government in exchange for diversity of views and opinions and informing the public. Anyone who has listened to radio station WJR-AM, the most powerful radio station in Detroit, knows about that lack of diversify of opinion. In contrast to the News editorial, there many be 24-hour cables news outlets, but news programming offered by affiliates of NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox still accounts for about half of all television viewing.

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