Marshall The Troops Against the Bells?
No. There must still be a place for journalists in the information business.
By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.
Jim Cooper, the Tennessee congressman who is carrying the ball for the newspaper industry in its big showdown against the telephone companies, has a bad idea, about as bad as they come.
He wants newspaper editors to enlist in the battle against the Baby Bells, alongside their publishers, and "get their reporters in line" (see "Electronic Warfare," by Penny Pagano, p. 18). Editors have made a "terrible mistake" in not formally supporting his legislation, he says. "It may well mean that ANPA [the American Newspaper Publishers Association] will lose this battle because it can't marshall its troops the way the Bells do."
It is easy to forgive the congressman for these comments. It would be impossible to forgive newspaper editors, individually and collectively, if they fell in line as he would like. And reporters should scream bloody murder (WJR's number is 301-513-0001) if they are pressured to bow to the business side on this.
The issue at hand is whether the seven regional Bell companies will be free to provide a wide range of information services. Newspapers, joined by cable interests and some others, fear the Bell companies would compete unfairly because they control the delivery system.
The fear is understandable. Newspaper companies would be staggered if they lost their classifieds and their competitiveness in providing sports scores, securities data and other information that can be delivered electronically. Past anticompetitive practices by the Bells suggest they would, indeed, throttle their newspaper competition if they had insufficient regulation.
The Democratic congressman's solution is better than his advice to editors. His bill would prevent a regional Bell from offering electronic information in its own area until it has substantial local competition in telephone service. The regional Bell could offer information services elsewhere, though.
The truth is that newspapers cannot expect to hold back the tide, keeping the telephone companies out of their business. But it is in the country's best interest to prevent the Bells from controlling the terms of that competition. Whether the answer is Cooper's bill or some other compromise, the game must be fair.
As our story notes, some newspaper companies already are working with telephone companies to provide information services. We will see a lot more of that, along with the inevitable competition.
In the meantime, reporters should be reporters.
And when a newspaper takes an editorial position, it should not be because its publisher or an industry association has gotten it "in line" on this issue but because it has reached a reasoned conclusion in the usual way and made sure its readers know the newspaper's self-interest.
That may sound naive; I think I know where most papers will come out (though some already have taken positions opposed to the ANPA). But there should be no whip-cracking.
After all, there must still be a place for journalists in the information business, not just information processors answering to the counting house. And the journalists out there should adhere to their professional standards. The precious distinction between newspapers and other businesses, including the telephone business, depends upon that. l ###