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American Journalism Review
News Blackout  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2004

News Blackout   

The FCC was getting ready to loosen the rules limiting media concentration. A grassroots movement had sprung up to derail the plan. But you wouldn’t have learned much about the controversy from many news outlets owned by the big conglomerates that were eager to cash in.

By Charles Layton
Charles Layton ( is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » The Sound of Silence
   » What the FCC Did
   » Tracking the Coverage

It was early September 2002 when Karen Young, a grassroots activist from Chicago, got wind of what the Federal Communications Commission was up to.

Young was attending a conference in Seattle, a diverse gathering that included, among others, some Philadelphians involved in the low-power FM radio movement, a West Coast group promoting public-access television and a guy concerned about human-rights abuses in East Timor who had been trying without success to get his issue into the mainstream press. What unified them all was a deep distrust of the giant corporations that own America's major news outlets and therefore, in the activists' view, control the public discourse.

It suddenly became the talk of the conference when the FCC announced that it was reviewing--and might soon change--most of its limits on ownership of radio and TV stations and newspapers.

This was scarcely a surprise. The activists knew that the corporations wanted to grow even larger, through new mergers and acquisitions, and that the FCC's new chairman, Michael Powell, wanted to help them.

Young had seen the effects of such consolidation in Chicago. After Fox acquired its second television station there, it killed off all of that station's locally produced programs, including an acclaimed children's educational series. After Viacom, through a merger, wound up owning both of Chicago's all-news AM stations, it converted one of them to sports talk. And now that Clear Channel Communications owned six Chicago radio stations, Viacom seven, Disney four and the Salt Lake City-based Bonneville International Corporation five, the result, according to critics, was cookie-cutter formats all along the dial.

Young knew people who had lost their jobs in these consolidations. "It used to be," she says, "that you would have three separate stations in three separate buildings, and each one of them had a sales manager, each one of them had a promotion director, each one of them had a program director. Now, no. There's one building, one program director for two or three stations, one promotion director for two or three stations."

Her colleagues in other cities had witnessed the same trends. For example, after Viacom came to own two TV stations in Los Angeles, field reporters began carrying microphones labeled KCBS on one side and KCAL on the other.

Before leaving Seattle, Young went online to check the news coverage of the FCC's announcement. She says she looked at 10 metropolitan dailies to see if they'd carried stories. She found only one, in the Los Angeles Times. "That's when I realized," she says, "that they really had no intention of letting the public know that this was happening."

Young was right.

Over the next eight months, as the FCC moved toward final action on a plan that would greatly benefit a handful of large companies, most newspapers and broadcast outlets owned by those companies barely mentioned the issue.

In cities all around the country, people like Karen Young were staging small demonstrations, collecting names on petitions, writing press releases, manning information tables at public gatherings, submitting op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, blowing off steam on the Internet and organizing educational forums on university campuses. But most Americans knew nothing of this, thanks to the media's silence.

In February, with the FCC debate in full flower, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 72 percent of Americans had heard "nothing at all" about it. Only 4 percent said they had heard "a lot." The survey also found that the more people did know, the more they tended to oppose what the FCC was doing. In other words, Big Media had an interest in keeping people uninformed.

Even in late April and early May--as organizations with serious political clout (including such odd bedfellows as the National Organization for Women and the National Rifle Association) became involved, and as members of Congress, energized by a popular groundswell, started holding news conferences--even then, most of the media stayed silent.

Two exceptions were the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, which had been tracking the issue for at least a couple of years. The Tribune Co.-owned Los Angeles Times was one of the few newspapers that gave serious, consistent coverage to the issue. Some newspaper columnists also sounded off, notably William Safire of the New York Times, Brian Lowry of the Los Angeles Times and Ted Cox, a media columnist for the Daily Herald, an independently owned paper in Chicago's northwest suburbs.

It should also be said that on the rare occasions when other media outlets ran stories, they were generally objective and fair. The trouble was not the quality of the coverage but the dearth of it.

There is irony in this. One of the activists' main claims is that the more giant conglomerates come to control the media, the more they stifle viewpoints at odds with their interests. Their failure to cover the FCC story seemed like Exhibit A.

To try to measure how much of a media blackout there really was, AJR reviewed the coverage of a number of news outlets. (See "Tracking the Coverage") Television fared the worst in our survey. For the first five months of this year, leading up to June 2, when the FCC formally voted to relax the ownership rules, we found virtually no coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Fox and CNN. While some newspapers produced a respectable flurry of stories in the weeks prior to the FCC's action, the major networks--where most people get their news--acknowledged the issue only after protests in Washington had grown impossible to ignore.

Specifically, we found that NBC (owned by General Electric) ran nothing prior to the FCC's action except for a single three-minute segment on May 28--just five days before the FCC was due to act. CBS (owned by Viacom) ran nothing until May 13, when it broadcast a 50-word piece on its morning news program. It ran nothing in prime time until May 29. CNN (owned by Time Warner) didn't cover the issue until May 27, although there were a few segments in mid-May on its business news programs on CNNfn. Fox News (owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation) ran nothing until May 30.

ABC (owned by Disney) aired the story a few days earlier than the other networks. We found two stories that lightly skimmed the surface--a 686-word segment on "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings" on May 15 and a 399-word segment on May 18. However, the May 18 piece dealt entirely with local radio, which was not, at that point, the primary issue. The May 15 piece also devoted nearly half its time to local radio monopolies.

A few days before the FCC was due to act, ABC's coverage improved markedly. On May 28's "Nightline," Ted Koppel finally treated the issue of media ownership in depth. Koppel noted in his introduction that the FCC's impending action was "a big step that has received relatively little attention and almost no national debate" and that now "it appears to be a done deal."

Two nights later, "World News Tonight" devoted a two-minute segment to the angry public response, which had been going on for weeks. "Never," the report said, "has the Federal Communications Commission been the target of such widespread outrage, hundreds of thousands of e-mails and letters, all protesting next week's expected decision to let big media companies own more media outlets."

And on Sunday morning, June 1, George Stephanopoulos interviewed FCC Chairman Powell on ABC's "This Week" and then led a roundtable discussion on the ownership issue.

There was a note of almost sheepish apology in some of CNN's belated coverage. On May 27, reporter Leon Harris told viewers, "This is a much bigger decision than maybe you may even be aware of, because it really hasn't been talked about much publicly." He then asked a guest on his program, Chellie Pingree, the president of Common Cause, to explain what was going on, because, again, "the general public really doesn't know much about this."

Pingree replied that maybe that was because "media outlets aren't reporting on what could be an enormous largess for them."

Paul Slavin, who was executive producer of ABC's "World News Tonight" last spring, says he thought his network "did an extensive amount of coverage from the 15th on, when this thing got to a point where we thought our viewers would be interested in it." He notes the time constraints on network news programs--there are only about 22 minutes of actual news in a half-hour program--and also the fact that the war in Iraq was going on.

"As a rule, we don't have the luxury of covering process stories as much as many of us would like to," says Slavin, who is now the network's senior vice president of worldwide newsgathering. "I think if you look at it in totality, and look at other process stories like this, we probably devoted more time to this than to almost anything else [of its kind]."

Fox's Neil Cavuto has no apologies about his network's coverage. An anchor who also holds the title vice president of business news, he says he wasn't at all sure what the FCC was going to do until it acted on June 2. "It was not considered a slam dunk that these rules wouldn't be extended," he says. "We don't strike until the lightning strikes."

At any given moment, he says, scores of federal agencies and congressional committees are debating things that could have an impact on consumers. "My biggest concern," he says, "is what's going to be the most compelling TV, what's going to bring eyeballs to the screen."

Cavuto says he based his story decisions "on what's good solid journalism and what will attract the audience." He was not influenced, he adds, by his company's interest in the outcome.

The other networks declined to comment on their coverage or did not respond to requests for comment.

What was at issue was the biggest reconsideration of media ownership rules in the FCC's history.

One rule under review prevented a corporation from owning more than one of the top four TV stations in a single market. Another blocked mergers among the four largest networks--ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Another said no corporation could own TV stations that together reached more than 35 percent of all U.S. households. Another prevented a company from owning a full-service radio or TV station and a daily newspaper in the same market.

While at least a dozen big media companies had a strong interest in these rules, those most immediately affected were Viacom, Fox and the Tribune Co. Viacom and Fox were lobbying especially hard to get rid of the 35 percent TV cap, because both companies already exceeded that limit under temporary waivers from the FCC. Unless the limits were lifted, they would have to sell off some stations.

The Tribune Co., which owns 13 daily newspapers and 26 TV stations, had an equally urgent problem with the rule against cross-ownership of newspaper and broadcast holdings. That rule had been imposed in 1975 to prevent the domination of local news by a single owner. Tribune's purchase of the Times Mirror chain in 2000 was a direct challenge to the rule; the company had deliberately acquired three newspapers (Long Island's Newsday, the Los Angeles Times and the Hartford Courant) in places where it already owned TV stations. It also owns a station and a newspaper in Orlando. (Additionally, in Chicago, the company owns TV and radio stations as well as the Chicago Tribune, but that arrangement predated the 1975 rule and had been grandfathered in place.)

In purchasing Times Mirror, Tribune had gambled that the FCC would not force it to divest any of its overlapping properties.

The combining of print, radio, television and online news is central to Tribune's business strategy. Other chains, such as Cox, Gannett, Media General and Belo, also have print and broadcast cross-ownerships at stake. But Tribune has exploited the resulting synergies--cross promotion, shared newsgathering resources, packaged multimedia advertising deals--more systematically than any other company. (See "Synergy City," May 1998.) And it was eager to expand even more, once the FCC rules were relaxed.

In Chicago, besides owning the city's dominant newspaper, Tribune owns WGN-Channel 9, WGN-AM radio, the cable news station CLTV, Chicago Magazine and the Spanish-language newspaper Hoy, plus the Chicago Cubs. It has also recently launched a new publication, Red Eye, a daily tabloid aimed at younger readers.

The Tribune got off to a pretty good start in covering the story. On September 12, 2002, an article on the front of its business section told of the disappearance of independent, family-owned newspapers and the concentration of media in the hands of large public companies. The piece noted the predisposition of the Republican-controlled FCC to allow further concentration, and it noted the Tribune Co.'s strong interest in this.

An Associated Press story, played as a sidebar, quoted a former FCC official as saying, "What would people say if their cable companies, one newspaper in their town, half of the radio stations and 30 percent of the TV stations were all owned by the same company?"

The next day, a story on page 6 of the main news section predicted that the FCC's rules review "could reshape the nation's media."

From that point on, however, the Tribune seemed to lose interest in the consumer and democracy angles, treating the story mainly as a business and investment issue. A story on November 20 looked at how certain businesses might fare under Republican control of the U.S. Senate. The piece devoted seven paragraphs to the FCC's plans and to the Tribune Co.'s position on cross-ownership. It ran on the business front.

The issue next surfaced on January 3, also on the business front, in a story about business prospects for the coming year. The piece dealt with depressed advertising sales and said big media companies might get "some welcome relief" from the FCC.

Many of the Tribune's critics believe it ignored the FCC issue altogether, but that wasn't the case. The paper actually ran more news on the subject than many other metro dailies. But much of its coverage ignored the growing political confrontation and would have been missed in any case by readers who don't pay close attention to the business pages.

Toward the end of 2002, Michael Copps, one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC, launched an ambitious campaign to block the Republican majority's deregulation plans. Copps was crisscrossing the country, speaking to lawmakers, religious groups, unions and newspaper editorial boards. He was pressuring Powell to extend a public comment period by 30 days and to conduct hearings so ordinary citizens, not just lobbyists, could have a say in the process.

He was starting to find a sympathetic ear in some quarters, especially after FCC officials had seemed to express contempt for the public's input. They were quoted as dismissing public hearings as a waste of time and money and, as one FCC official put it, "an exercise in foot-stomping."

Groups as diverse as the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild of America, Consumers Union and the Parents Television Council began to voice concerns about more media consolidation. In January, members of the Senate Commerce Committee peppered Powell with skeptical questions.

The chairman was "frustrated at growing criticism of the process," according to the Los Angeles Times, and the upshot was that he finally agreed to hold a single public hearing. He scheduled it for February 27 in Richmond, Virginia.

Not only was this interesting and important controversy hard to find in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, it also went uncovered in the Tribune's main rival, the Chicago Sun-Times. And also on the television news programs, both national and local, that most Chicagoans watched.

This was the challenge facing Karen Young as she tried to take her case to the people of Chicago. Grassroots organizers all around the country were facing similar obstacles and trying to overcome them in similar ways. So if one wants to understand how, in the first half of 2003, the issue of media consolidation was forced out of the shadows and into the public light, Young's experience makes a pretty good model.

Young had been a college radio disc jockey in 1975 and later, in the early 1980s, worked at WBAB on Long Island. It was a time when DJs could still put a personal stamp on their programs. While WBAB's executives chose the current songs for the playlists, Young says, the DJs got to choose the older ones, and they got plenty of time to air them. They also controlled the sequence of the songs. Young even sneaked in records from home on occasion, although she wasn't supposed to do that.

"So it was great for the audience," she says, growing animated at the memory, "because they got exposed to more different things, and it was great for us because we were able to put our own passions into it."

Besides being a DJ for two decades, she has also worked in radio programming, research, and sales and marketing. Today, she is an adjunct professor in the radio department at Columbia College in Chicago and freelances for Arbitron, the ratings company.

But those are her day jobs. What she really is now is a social activist, operating out of her apartment in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, projecting herself into the wider world via computer and phone.

With growing concern she has watched the media evolve from the kind of openness she once knew at WBAB to the top-down control that comes with corporate ownership.

"Over time," she says, "I've seen fewer and fewer viewpoints being presented in the media. I care deeply about the political system. I've always voted. I've often voted for independent candidates, and I've seen how third parties and independent candidates are just so completely out of the picture so far as the mainstream is concerned.... So increasingly over time, I started to see the media as central to what was holding our society back from being a real democracy."

Early last year she got involved with Chicago Media Watch, an organization of about 10 core members involved mainly in educational activities. They distribute a quarterly newsletter and organize a conference every year or two. She has since cofounded a second organization, Chicago Media Action. The difference between the two groups seems to be in the names: "watch" versus "action."

For much of 2002 Young's main interest was a Senate bill aimed at controlling certain monopolistic practices in the radio and music concert industries. She would set up tables at record stores and concerts and ask people to sign a petition supporting the bill. She would also take down the names of people who might want to get more involved. It was basic grassroots organizing.

Then came the conference in Seattle and the FCC's plan to review its ownership rules. At the conference, she says, "a number of us groups got together and said, 'We really need to do something about this.' They all came back to their communities and started trying to alert people."

When Young heard that the FCC would hold a public hearing in February, she and a colleague decided to go. They rented a car and headed for Richmond, driving 18 hours straight through.

"Richmond, you know, is two hours from D.C., and if you were in that room it was very clear who was who," she says. "There were a lot of people in fancy suits, briefcases, and then there were other people in jeans, T-shirts and costumes, protesting. I was somewhere in the middle."

The opponents felt very much shut out of the process. Many didn't know the ropes the way the professional lobbyists did. And they were not being paid to be there, as the lobbyists were.

"It was hard for us to get people to Richmond," Young says. "It was kind of out of the way. It's a long way for people to travel. Most of us have jobs; we can't just run off during the week like that.

"And the room wasn't even full. At that point, most of America was completely asleep about this whole thing. And that was depressing too."

Another person who attended the Richmond hearing was Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut. Powell (not to be confused with the FCC chairman, Michael Powell) was there to testify about what he termed the "monopolization of the news media in Connecticut" and especially to argue for retaining the rule against cross-ownership.

He testified that his independently owned paper, which serves 17 towns east and north of Hartford, has to compete with a powerful array of Tribune Co. properties. Those include the state's major daily paper, the Hartford Courant; two TV stations in the city; and the state's largest group of weekly newspapers, including Hartford's "alternative" paper. These properties "now promote each other constantly and exchange features," the editor said. He said Tribune uses its clout to negotiate exclusionary contracts with newspaper feature syndicates.

Powell also pointed out to the commissioners that Tribune owns two other Connecticut dailies, the Stamford Advocate and Greenwich Time.

Months after Powell's Richmond appearance, some of the inside dealings between the FCC and big media companies were exposed. The Center for Public Integrity discovered that media companies and their lobbyists had met behind closed doors with FCC officials more than 70 times. The center also reported that radio and TV broadcasters treated FCC officials to nearly $450,000 in travel and entertainment over the past eight years. At the Tribune Co.'s annual meeting, weeks before the FCC's June 2 decision, President and CEO Dennis FitzSimons had assured stockholders that he had met with the FCC chairman "and we were very encouraged by the chairman's comments."

"It was a rig job from beginning to end," Powell, the Connecticut editor, says. "I'm writing letter after letter to the commissioners on the issue and never got one acknowledgment. And then we find out later that the commission had meeting after meeting with the lobbyists for the big media companies."

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