The Gadfly  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2004

The Gadfly   

Frank Blethen’s battle against media consolidation

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


"You know, at one time I thought I was going to be a social worker," Frank Blethen confides with a chuckle. "That was before I knew what social workers do, and what they got paid."

Today Blethen is publisher of the Seattle Times and heads the family-run company that owns newspapers in Washington state and Maine.

But in a sense, he is a social worker. Blethen is one of journalism's loudest and most persistent critics of a trend that he sees doing real damage to society--the consolidation of American media interests into the hands of fewer and fewer giant corporations. He makes speeches on the subject, convenes meetings about it, runs advertisements about it, brings it up in dinner conversation. Before President Bush even got to the Republican convention, the Times had endorsed his opponent, in part because of John Kerry's stance against media deregulation.

Along the way, Blethen has helped blast this complex, arcane issue out of the corporate suites and onto the radar of average Americans. Against all odds, his side seems to be gaining traction.

"There's always a tipping point to these things," he says. "What I think now is, it doesn't matter where you are in America, you know there's something wrong."

Call him a gadfly, call him a crusader--there are those in the industry who would call him much worse. At last spring's joint meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America in Washington, D.C., he spent most of his time with the editors instead of the publishers. When asked if he had stumbled into the wrong crowd, he replied with a wink, "I like to be where people want to talk to me."

Don't be fooled by Blethen's mischievous streak or snow-white St. Nick beard. Jolly he is not. Raised by a single mother, he washed dishes to help put himself through college and only went into the newspaper business in the first place to get to know his estranged father. He is unafraid to do business with bare knuckles. Several years ago his Seattle paper went through a tough newsroom strike, and even now he is waging a contentious battle against Hearst, owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, over the two papers' joint operating agreement.

But shaped by his family's deep roots in community newspapering, Blethen retains the quaint notion that ownership also conveys civic responsibility. And the social worker in him feels compelled to speak truth to power. So beginning in the late 1980s, he went public with concerns about the implications of newspaper consolidation, and his alarm has risen as that consolidation has quickened. His opposition basically boils down to two things: that the corporatization of news has put the relationship of profit to good journalism out of balance, and that absentee ownership increasingly undermines hometown obligations.

It was unsurprising, then, when Blethen blasted the Federal Communications Commission's recent attempt to relax longstanding rules limiting cross-ownership (see "News Blackout", December 2003/January 2004). What was surprising is that he had so much company--some 2 million Americans protested to the FCC. That got the attention of Congress, which moved to limit some of the damage. Several months ago a federal appeals court iced the rest of the FCC decision, saying the agency had done a poor job of figuring out how to weigh the impact of various media outlets within a community.

One can argue that consolidation also has exacerbated the overly cozy relationship that has developed over the years between the regulated media and their regulators. This had led to blatant conflicts of interest like those detailed by senior writer Charles Layton in this issue (see "Lobbying Juggernaut," September/October 2004).

Blethen says the public finally is getting fed up with this cynical media environment, which puts the news consumer dead last in the pecking order. "There's this level of arrogance that comes when these companies get so big, and so out of touch," he says. "I think that's important because they keep throwing fuel on the fire. They can't help themselves." The situation has only worsened in the wake of the federal deregulation legislation passed in 1996, which created a world where, among other outrages, a handful of companies can control most of the nation's radio stations. "Intuitively, I think people understand that if someone else's voice can't be heard, then their voice might not be heard. And in a democracy, voices must be heard."

I remind Blethen that with half a dozen daily papers now in his portfolio, it might be said that he is a bit of a media mogul himself, yes? He laughs, concedes the point but reminds me that his family has had ties to both the Washington and Maine papers for years. Blethen suggests a reasonable rule of thumb: "If a chain gets so big that you're calling your newspapers 'properties' instead of by their names, you're too big."

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