Guest Commentary: Consolidation vs. eternal vigilance

Oct 7, 2002  •  Post A Comment

As I understand it, here is where things stand:
No media conglomerate may own two television networks and no newspaper may own a TV station in the same city (unless it already owned it before this rule was written); a network may not own television stations that in sum reach more than 35 percent of the American population; a broadcaster may not own two television stations in the same market unless there are at least eight other competitors; and no company may own more than eight radio stations in the same market.
Further, no company may own both broadcast and cable TV outlets, and even where there are eight or more competitors, a company may not own two TV stations if they are both in the market’s top four.
Some of these rules go way back to the writing of the first Communications Act, when Herbert Hoover was president. Some were written immediately following World War II in reaction to the perception that monopoly control of news media in some European countries had fueled that conflict. Some are, of course, recent responses to the growth of cable and the explosive proliferation of outlets.
Now a federal court has told the Federal Communications Commission to review these rules and perhaps revise them downward, which is just fine with commission Chairman Michael Powell, who has never made a secret of his dislike for regulation. In today’s media marketplace, goes the argument, a monopoly is impossible. Some disagree, such as South Carolina’s Sen. Fritz Hollings, who can be counted on to mount a fierce one-man counterattack. Others complain that the kind of super-consolidation that will follow the inevitable weakening of the rules may not beget a monopoly in the marketplace, but it will surely leave us with monopolies on content.
Tom Wolzien, who before becoming the widely quoted media analyst for Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. was a producer and then a VP at NBC News, e-mailed ominously: “GE could buy AOL could buy The New York Times could buy The Tribune Co., now including Times-Mirror papers … Comcast/AT&T Broadband could merge with Viacom could buy The Washington Post … Microsoft could buy Disney and … and … and … .”
Girding for battle, opponents of the expected consolidation epidemic cite the blandness and sameness of radio under a few big owners as foretaste of what awaits television. The argument, which is well along although the public does not yet seem ready to get involved, turns heated when it comes to news. News may get just as much air time, but expect fewer reporters, fewer bureaus, fewer cameramen risking danger, fewer analysts who can explain what’s going on. As competition shrinks, bubble-head news plus video press releases can earn as much as the genuine article, and reducing costs boosts profits.
That just about summarizes the debate as the broadcasting community-but so far not the general public-waits tensely for the commission’s decision. Whether the fears of the public-interest folks, the consumer advocates and other do-gooders are justified, only history will tell. But another, subtler, danger has received little if any attention.
It is generally accepted, even by some of its ardent supporters, that the Bush administration is the most secretive in living memory. A recent issue of the American Journalism Review catalogs a host of Freedom of Information Act requests being undercut and even sabotaged, supposedly public records being withheld from legitimate requests and secrets kept about routine public business. This only emphasizes what is true of all administrations, indeed, all levels of government, that they would rather not tell you a lot of what you are entitled to know. If news organizations don’t fight to open up such secrets, it is unlikely anyone else will. But what is a “news organization” these days?
The role of news organizations
Importantly, “fighting” means going to court. At least since the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s Americans have learned about official misconduct through news organizations’ taking legal action. Doing this can enhance and embellish a news organization’s standing. But it can be as well a nuisance and a costly burden, a difficult duty that news management accepts with a sigh. But if not they, then who?
Conglomerates that include news among their many businesses see an easy target as they cut costs, like that group in the law department that writes and files briefs in behalf of free expression and open access to official records, handles charges of libel and responds to the nuisance cases that all journalism suffers. Going to law is expensive business.
Besides, these multicompany behemoths usually have other, more important fish to fry. Some are looking for defense contracts for their manufacturing divisions. Some need the good will of the Department of Commerce to sell their entertainment products abroad. Some just want rules relaxed so they can own more and make more. So those news people down the line are discouraged from mounting their quixotic crusades, and even standard coverage is toned down because of a word from on high that we don’t want any trouble.
In 1790, an Irishman named John Philpot Curran said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” But eternal vigilance is expensive, which goes to the bottom line.
Reuven Frank was twice president of NBC News, from 1968 to ’73 and 1982 to ’84.