The Sound of Silence  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   December/January 2004

The Sound of Silence   

Despite too little news coverage, the people rise up 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.     

Related reading:
   » News Blackout

We advocates ask an awful lot of "the people." Whether the country is going to hell because of (insert your issue here: abortion, public schools, the budget deficit, prescription drugs, irradiated food, stem cells, Republicans, Democrats, Martians), we figure if only the people would just awaken to the obvious and get themselves into a righteous lather, things by God would surely change.

I've been guilty of this myself, wondering aloud and often when the people would come to their senses about the parlous state of a news industry that they presumably rely on for crucial information. Never mind that the people are kind of busy right now, what with trying to hang on to their jobs or keeping their kids off drugs or wondering if their nation has morphed into an imperial Rome for the 21st century.

Recently, though, the people did rise up and make their voices heard on a major media issue. This was all the more remarkable for the fact that the media had told them almost nothing about the issue in the first place.

I'm referring to what happened in June when the Federal Communications Commission, in a contentious decision, voted to knock down cross-ownership rules that for a generation had limited the number and kinds of news outlets a company could hold in a single market.

Under the new rules, newspapers would no longer be prohibited from owning television stations in their hometowns. Companies would be able to own multiple TV stations in the same market, and they could own them in more markets than is currently true. If upheld--a federal appellate court has blocked the new rules pending further review--the FCC decision will almost certainly reshape the news landscape.

Clearly Big Media had a seriously vested interest in the FCC ruling coming out the way it did--lobbied long and hard for it, in fact. Could that have had anything to do with the fact that, as Charles Layton recounts in this issue (see "News Blackout"), the nation's newspapers and networks told us virtually nothing about the FCC vote until it was on top of us?

Up against this informational stonewalling, grassroots opponents of deregulation still managed to stitch together a remarkable coalition. Any movement that puts Ernest Hollings, Jesse Helms, John McCain, R.E.M., the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Rifle Association in the same bed must have something going for it.

Indeed, after the FCC's 3-2, party-line vote, more than 2 million people called, wrote or sent e-mails to the FCC and their congressional representatives to vent their displeasure. And though the Bush administration stands squarely behind the ruling, both houses of a Republican Congress have voted to repeal at least parts of the decision, a stunning repudiation of the FCC and its chairman, Michael Powell.

As I said in this space last year, I can understand why the news industry wanted this ruling. It makes wonderful business sense. But no amount of spinning can turn this into a good thing for consumers. Apply the common-sense test. When in the same market a company owns the dominant newspaper, a television station and several radio stations, is there really any incentive for it to hire more journalists? Hardly. But might that same company be tempted to reduce its overall news staffing? As Fox might say, you decide.

Layton's piece offers a hint: When giant Viacom picked up a second television station in Los Angeles, he writes, "field reporters began carrying microphones labeled KCBS on one side and KCAL on the other." Now that's what I call synergy.

Besides, we don't have to guess at how media companies react to deregulation. We have the very instructive and awful example of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which unleashed a stampede of media consolidation and turned commercial radio into oatmeal from one end of the dial to the other.

Still, I was surprised and delighted by the public's adverse response. Maybe in this post-Enron world the people just don't like corporate bigness anymore. Or maybe they're sophisticated enough to see that when "Good Morning America" does a week from Disney World, it's not just a coincidence. Perhaps they're getting a tad suspicious.

One thing is clear. The FCC action was a naked power grab on the part of a news industry desperate to hang on to monopolies at any cost. Reason enough to make the people suspicious.

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