Continuation of <i>News Blackout</i>  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2004

Continuation of News Blackout   

By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » What the FCC Did
   » Tracking the Coverage

Karen Young took advantage of the Richmond meeting to try to organize an educational forum of her own in Chicago. She wanted Michael Copps to come. She knew the rebellious commissioner had already made similar appearances and was looking for more. So at the Richmond hearing she introduced herself to two members of Copps' staff and asked them to figure out when their boss could be in Chicago.

After the hearing, she drove back from Richmond through a snowstorm, "and then the next day, I think, when I got home, they called and said, 'OK, we can do it April 2.' " That was exactly two months before the FCC was due to take its decisive vote.

The venue Young chose for the forum was the Northwestern University School of Law.

By the time April 2 arrived, she and her fellow organizers--who now included a student group at the law school--had landed not only Copps but also Chellie Pingree, the president of Common Cause. In addition to those two luminaries, they had a number of university professors; media executives from Clear Channel, Tribune Co. and local broadcasting outlets; and journalists from some of the local alternative media. The participants were organized into three discussion panels, dealing with the history of media regulation, the effect of media consolidation on programming diversity and the effect of consolidation on public access.

In his opening remarks that morning, Copps noted that members of both the Senate and the House had shown great concern about ownership consolidation, but that "the media has not done a very good job of teeing this issue up for the American public... I haven't seen the first network report on media ownership."

Copps said he had "been beating my head against the wall trying to figure out a way to get the national media to cover this" and that he hoped it would at least get covered in the Chicago area. "I hope it will be well reported on radio and television tonight. I hope it will be in newspapers here and across the Middle West tomorrow."

The past lack of coverage was a major point of complaint at the forum throughout the day. A University of Chicago professor noted that although the Tribune had "barely covered the issue" in its news columns, it had seen fit to editorialize for removal of the FCC restraints. The professor said when she had asked a group of her best-informed students what they thought about the issue, not one of them had heard of it.

A Michigan State professor said he didn't fault the media for that. He doubted the public would have paid much attention anyway, "because you can't compel people to watch."

The president of ABC Radio Chicago also thought the issue was of little public interest. He got a rise out of the audience by pointing out the relatively small number of people in attendance--somewhere between 100 and 150. "We couldn't fill this room.... This proves my point," he said.

The editor of an alternative magazine replied, "Maybe there'd be more people here if you talked about the issues on your radio stations." Another panelist jumped in to ask, "Why is there not a camera crew from WLS here today?" Those remarks brought cheers from the audience.

When the discussion was thrown open for comments from the floor, hardly anyone had a kind word for the media. Arrogance, self-censorship, homogenized programming, lack of diversity--these were the main complaints.

If ever there was an opportune moment for the Chicago media to jump on the story--and try to prove their critics wrong--this was it. The forum took place on home turf and was full of local references. Reporters from Chicago's major papers and broadcast outlets had been invited to attend, and Young, like Copps, had hoped this would generate some news.

But the TV news programs had nothing that evening, and when Young checked the next day's Tribune and Sun-Times, there were no stories there either. A Tribune reporter, Jim Kirk, attended the conference. He didn't file a story, he says, because he didn't see a big daily news angle, and because one of the business writers, David Greising, had included an advance mention of the forum in his column, along with a few quotes from Copps. Anyway, Kirk says, he and another reporter were working on a longer-term project about the FCC.

Chicago's public radio station, WBEZ, did lead its local news that day with a story on media ownership, and mentioned the forum briefly. But the two local journalists who gave the forum the most attention were Michael Miner, media writer for the Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly, and Ted Cox of the Daily Herald.

Miner and Cox had already written at length about the dangers of unchecked media monopolies. In January, Miner had published a rebuttal of the Tribune Co.'s 32-page filing to the FCC. Miner numbered the company among those "media empires that lust for the deregulation they don't cover." Elsewhere in the article, he wrote that the Tribune "has called precious little attention to this major public-policy debate that's now being waged."

Miner had also written an item in advance of the April 2 forum, advising his readers of the time and place. A month later, he wrote that he had "heard from readers wondering if the April 2 forum was actually held. They hadn't read a word of coverage in the daily papers."

Cox took after the Tribune just as hard. His newspaper, the Daily Herald, with a circulation of 148,000, is the third-largest daily in the Chicago area. This family-owned paper has watched Tribune's expansion with understandable concern, and Cox, its media columnist, has probably written more comprehensive pieces on media consolidation than any other journalist in the Midwest. As early as July 2002, Cox was explaining the FCC's deregulation plans in depth. He had continued to cover the issue as the April 2 forum approached. And after the forum, he devoted his column to the lack of coverage by the area's leading news organizations, especially the Tribune.

"The time has come to label this what it is: a conspiracy of silence," Cox wrote.

But even though Young's forum drew a smallish crowd and failed to get the attention she had hoped for, it became one of the turning points in the activists' campaign. Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle says that her boss, Chellie Pingree, came back from Chicago determined to make the FCC a top priority. "She went out there and came back totally fired up about the issue," Boyle says. "She came back and we got into this, and there was very little coverage. We were trying to talk this up, and we weren't having a lot of success in getting our message out to the media. But I would have to say that really did change in the week or week-and-a-half leading up to the vote. There was a surge in coverage."

Contributing to the surge was an increase in coverage by the Washington Post, the New York Times and other papers during the month of May.

"Our online activist membership list grew from about 25,000 to more than 83,000 in just a couple of months," Boyle says. When I asked how much of that increase she attributed to the FCC issue, she replied "pretty much all of it."

Boyle says Common Cause directed almost 400,000 e-mails and faxes to Congress through its Web site. Other advocacy groups were doing similar things, including the Media Access Project, the Center for Digital Democracy and MoveOn.com.

During April and May, lawmakers bombarded the FCC with letters, asking Powell to make his proposed changes public--the details were still unknown except to a few insiders--and to delay final action. The Bush administration and some of its allies in Congress urged him to stick with his June 2 deadline, however, and he did.

In mid-May, the opposition got a tremendous lift when the National Rifle Association took up its cause. This produced an even bigger deluge of letters. "When we started getting that right-wing support, that was so critical," Young says.

The opponents got another boost when a group called the Future of Music Coalition, which lobbies against radio monopolies, put Common Cause in touch with Mike Mills of R.E.M. and Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam. In May, the two musicians, along with Pingree and the campaign director of MoveOn.com, participated in a conference call with the press. It brought a little star power to the battle.

In the midst of all this, the Chicago Tribune broke its silence with a page-one story on Sunday, May 11, by Jim Kirk, who covers media and advertising for the business news department, and Steve Johnson, a TV critic. The headline read: "New FCC regulations to rock media world; Critics fear dominance by a few giants."

The 2,400-word piece explained the various interests of the Tribune Co., Viacom, Fox and others. It explained some of the negative effects ownership consolidation had had in Chicago and around the country. It included a fascinating account of the Tribune Co.'s dominance in Hartford. It quoted the company's CEO, FitzSimons, as saying the critics were wrong about deregulation reducing the diversity of news and opinion. It also cited the "steadily growing opposition" to consolidation in Washington and around the nation, which one expert called "the biggest groundswell we've ever seen" in a telecommunications debate.

Two companion pieces ran on the Tribune's business front that day. One was a historical survey of past regulatory battles over railroads, commercial aviation, trucking, meatpacking and electric power. The other was a special report, running to almost 2,000 words, on the ill effects of ownership consolidation in the radio industry.

The main piece included this telling statement: "[T]he issue has garnered curiously light media attention--and, until recently, scant public scrutiny." But it did not explain why the newspaper itself, and the TV and radio stations the Tribune Co. owns, had ignored the growing opposition for so long.

To try to get answers to that question, I pay a visit one October day to Rob Karwath, the Tribune's associate managing editor for business news, who is in charge of most of the paper's FCC coverage. A 39-year-old Iowan, he came to the Tribune right out of college and has never worked anywhere else. His office is on the fourth floor of the corporation's Gothic-style tower on North Michigan Avenue.

Karwath opens the conversation by saying he is troubled by the conflicts created by the Tribune's multiple business interests. He reminds me of something in a memoir by Jim Squires, the paper's editor in the 1980s. Squires wrote that on the day he was hired, the Tribune's publisher announced an even more exciting acquisition: The company had just purchased the Chicago Cubs.

"What do you think of that?" the elated publisher asked Squires.

"You know," said Squires, choosing words carefully so as not to offend his new boss, "it creates some problems for the newspaper."

"Not at all," the publisher said. "It'll be great."

Karwath says Squires turned out to be right. Owning the Cubs has subjected the paper to all sorts of doubts and criticisms of its baseball coverage. "The sports guys deal with it all the time," Karwath says. "If you listen to sports radio, you'll hear it."

The paper's media critics face similar credibility problems, he says, when they write about programs on the company's TV and radio stations, or on competing stations.

And now there's the FCC.

His solution, Karwath assures me, is to "try to be as aggressive as possible" on any story involving the company.

He says he's never felt pressure from on high about any story, including the FCC controversy. He points to the May 11 package as evidence that the Tribune has done a responsible job. "We tried to be aggressive...to show folks that we weren't shying away from thoroughly covering this issue," he says.

I ask why the newsroom waited until three weeks before the FCC's vote. Part of Karwath's answer is that there's such a thing as covering a story too early. "If you get ahead of it too early then I think you run the risk of being somewhat irrelevant," he says. And so a paper needs to address an issue at the moment when readers are most receptive, "as they're tuning in. It's a very difficult thing to do."

I ask how people will ever reach the stage of being "tuned in" if the media keep them in the dark. He says he doubts that earlier coverage would have made much difference in that regard. The democratic system, he argues, "worked pretty darn well. Look at the reaction. Look at how people reacted almost immediately after the vote... People did get their information from somewhere. They did get involved. They called. Their politicians got interested."

In hindsight, shouldn't the paper at least have run a news story about Karen Young's forum? I recap some of the criticism the Tribune continues to receive about that.

Karwath hesitates. "Maybe it would have been the right decision to cover it," he says, "and it would have potentially at least answered some of the critics' criticisms. I know we didn't do it for the wrong reasons, but maybe there was another decision, and maybe we could have rethought our coverage here."

Since the FCC issued its new rules, careful readers may have noticed an interesting contradiction within the pages of the Tribune. On June 2, for instance, a news story began by saying the FCC was about to do something very important, something that "could significantly alter who controls what people see, hear and read." A second story, on the following day, spoke of the FCC's action as "a sweeping deregulation of the media." Yet a Tribune editorial on June 2 called the FCC's action "not much more than nibbling around the edges of deregulation." A few weeks later, the editorial writers restated their claim that, despite what the paper's reporters were saying, this was no big deal. "In fact," read the editorial, "what happened is fairly limited."

Karwath says of the editorial board, "They are truly representing the interests of the company." He adds that the editorial meetings "are places where the company, you know, the publisher sits in on political endorsements at times, here and at other papers."

After speaking with Karwath I call Bruce Dold, the Tribune's editorial page editor, and ask him if it's true that officials from the business side of the company help decide the paper's editorial-page positions. He says ordinarily not, but that they "might sit in on presidential endorsments, or gubernatorial, or U.S. Senate," and that, in fact, "the publisher has the final say on the endorsement." But he says the company's business officials did not weigh in on the FCC question. In that instance, he says, "The position the editorial page took is in the tradition of this newspaper's support of free and open markets."

Other Tribune Co. newspapers--Newsday, the L.A. Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and the Hartford Courant--also ran editorials in the weeks before the FCC vote. All argued for abolishing the cross-ownership rule.

Papers owned by Gannett, Belo, Cox and other affected chains published similar editorials. Most of them also acknowledged their parent company's financial interest in the issue.

The Orlando Sentinel's public editor, Manning Pynn, went further. In his column on the day before the FCC vote, he explained that he and other newspaper employees "receive paychecks from, and may own stock in" businesses that could become more profitable because of what the FCC was about to do. "Quite predictably," he wrote, "newspaper editorial boards, almost uniformly, have seen the proposed change as a pretty good idea." He also noted the insufficiency of the news coverage and the fact that most stories were being played "in business sections--not necessarily where someone interested in the non-financial aspect of the debate might expect to find them."

AJR had wanted to pursue those issues further with Tribune Co. corporate executives, but after several days of negotiations all we received was the following written statement from corporate headquarters:

"The Chicago Tribune's coverage of the public debate regarding the FCC's review of media ownership regulations was exhaustive and balanced, including nearly 20 articles on the subject this year, some of which appeared on the newspaper's front page and ran more than 2,000 words. The FCC's June 2nd decision remains an important issue to the public and one that the Chicago Tribune will continue covering in a comprehensive fashion."

The statement was preceded by a note that read: "You can attribute the following quote to Ann Marie Lipinski." Lipinski is the editor of the Chicago Tribune.

What the FCC did on June 2, by a 3-to-2 party-line vote, surprised no one. The agency left some of its curbs in place. It continued the ban on mergers among the top four TV networks, for instance. But it sided with the corporations on the two issues they'd lobbied for the hardest. It raised the 35 percent cap on television penetration to 45 percent, and it allowed cross-ownership of broadcast and newspaper properties except in markets with three or fewer TV stations. It also made it easier for a company to own two or three TV stations in a single city--something the Tribune Co. is especially eager to do wherever it can.

Each of the five commissioners issued a written statement on June 2. All three Republicans cited recent federal court decisions in favor of media companies' positions. They said they believed the courts wanted the FCC either to justify the existing rules with persuasive data or to alter them. They said their research showed that consumers today enjoy unprecedented diversity and richness of content, and that the old restrictions on ownership were remnants of, in Powell's words, "a bygone black-and-white era" before the existence of the Internet and cable and satellite TV. Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy put it more colorfully. "The federal court opinions specifically tell me," she wrote, "that any restrictions we place on ownership must be based on concrete evidence--not on fear and speculation about hypothetical media monopolies intent on exercising some type of Vulcan mind control over the American peoplemoguls."

Copps, in his dissent, said the diversity cited by the majority was an illusion, because the same big companies that own networks and newspaper chains also dominate the new cable, satellite and Internet media. He said the commission's action would lead to even "more media control by ever fewer corporate giants." Under the new rules, a company would be able to "exert massive influence over some communities by wielding three TV stations, eight radio stations, the cable operator, and the already monopolistic newspaper."

The popular uproar did not subside in the weeks and months that followed the decision. In July, the House voted to reimpose the 35 percent limit for TV station ownership. In September the Senate approved a stronger action, aimed at rolling back all of the rule changes, including the one on cross-ownership. In October, 190 House members signed a letter urging the House leadership to schedule a floor vote on the Senate's proposal, which many predicted would pass if it came to a vote. (As of this writing, it had not.)

Meanwhile, in September, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked implementation of the FCC's new rules "pending thorough and efficient judicial review." That appeared to put the changes in abeyance for some time.

But however that struggle ends, it is clear that the general issue of media ownership won't go away. A large body of literature has grown up around the subject--books with titles like "Megamedia," "Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy" and "Our Media, Not Theirs." On the other hand, one is hard put to find authors defending greater concentration of ownership.

What began as a movement of liberal-leaning groups and individuals now resonates all across the political spectrum. Such famously conservative figures as Sen. Trent Lott and former Sen. Jesse Helms have joined the cause. Helms complains that media bosses in New York and Los Angeles are forcing local stations to air vulgar and sexually explicit programs that offend community standards. More ownership concentration, he says, will make the problem worse. Various religious and social groups--including the Christian Coalition of America, the Parents Television Council, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Religious Broadcasters--voice similar concerns.

Activists say that one-sided coverage of the prewar debate on Iraq (see "Are the News Media Soft on Bush?" October/November) has energized another large constituency--people who opposed the war.

Others who have joined the fray include labor unions concerned about job cuts by corporate owners, ethnic and civil-rights groups concerned about the shrinking number of minority-owned media outlets, good-government groups deploring the lack of public-affairs coverage and musicians and music fans who say the corporate media freeze out locally popular artists.

Even many of the media companies' own employees are rising up against them. The Newspaper Guild has urged its members to work for reversal of the new FCC rules.

When Karen Young is asked if she thinks her movement will continue to grow, she says, "I do. I think it's a real movement." Although it is still young, and has no national leadership yet, she says she expects that to change.

Is there a chance this could become a permanent force in society, like, say, the environmental movement?

"Yes," she says, "I hope it will become that. And I'm trying to work toward that in my own small way."


Click here to return to the beginning of the article.

###