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Craig Aaron

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Hey, CJR; Let's Do the Time Warp Again!

Posted: 12/26/2012 1:13 pm

Over at the Columbia Journalism Review, Steven Waldman laments that the media ownership debate is "stuck in a bit of a 1980s time warp."

Well, gag me with a spoon.

Waldman, a respected former Federal Communications Commission official who authored the agency's exhaustive "future of media" report, dismisses the latest moves by the FCC to eliminate longstanding limits on how much media one company can own in a single market as "hardly radical."

What else would you call eliminating the only rules that would prevent Rupert Murdoch from adding the Los Angles Times and Chicago Tribune to his media empire?

Terrible? Apocalyptic? Insane? How about just plain wrong?

As Charlie Pierce recently wrote in Esquire about the phone-hacking and Petraeus-backing head of News Corp.: "There is simply no reason for any country anywhere in the world ever to do favors for Rupert Murdoch ever again."

Yet that's exactly what the FCC is proposing to do. For a guy who has spent so much time thinking about the crisis in journalism, Waldman seems strangely oblivious to how we actually got into the current mess.

One Thing Leads to Another

The rise of the Internet and the end of local advertising monopolies have a lot to do with journalism's troubles. So does the sputtering economy. But the media industry's most serious wounds have been self-inflicted -- and they started way before 2009.

The current debate over media ownership rules can indeed be traced to the 1980s, when the Reagan-era FCC, to quote the editors of CJR, "began dismantling nearly a century of media regulation, touching off a thirty-year run of mergers and acquisitions that continues unabated."

This is the period when GE bought NBC and Murdoch first got his hands on 20th Century Fox. It was 1984 -- Orwell, anyone? -- when the FCC first increased how many stations one company could own to 12 AM, 12 FM and 12 TV stations. How quaint.

In the 1990s, we saw these and other modest ownership limits obliterated entirely, leading to the massive expansion of behemoths like Clear Channel, News Corp. and Sinclair. Where once maybe 50 companies dominated the legacy media landscape, it went down to six or eight.

When the Bush administration tried to push through still more media consolidation in 2003, some 3 million people took action against the changes. The FCC went forward anyway -- only to see the Senate vote to overturn the weaker rules and the courts eventually throw them out.

In 2007, the FCC again tried to loosen the rules. Again, 99 percent of the public comments at the FCC opposed the move, and thousands packed public hearings across the country to voice their opposition. The FCC again moved forward anyway.

Again, the Senate voted to overturn the rules -- this time with a resolution sponsored by Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and a junior senator named Barack Obama.

And again, the courts struck down the rules -- in a case argued by Free Press -- because the FCC failed to run an open process or address the impact of the changes on media ownership diversity.

If it feels like this debate is getting stale, that's probably because the FCC keeps trotting out the same tired ideas and failed policies.

True Colors

Writing in CJR, Waldman also skirts the main issue in the current debate: ownership diversity. The courts have ordered the FCC to first study the impact of greater consolidation on broadcast ownership by women and people of color before changing any rules.

Women currently own less than 7 percent of TV stations; people of color own just 3.2 percent of TV stations, according to the latest analysis. There are exactly three African-American owners of full-power TV stations left in America. That's shameful.

That's why at least 60 members of Congress, The Newspaper Guild and every major civil rights group, including the NAACP, Rainbow PUSH Coalition and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, oppose the FCC's current proposal.

All the existing evidence -- and common sense -- tells us that more consolidation will raise the barriers to entry and make it next to impossible for new owners to get in the market. The onus is on the FCC to prove otherwise.

Burning Down the House

But even if you were to set aside the FCC's blatant failure to address diversity, neither Waldman nor the FCC backs up claims that changing ownership rules will actually help struggling newspapers, the journalists who work there or the public.

In fact, the crisis in journalism is a direct result of the type of pro-consolidation policies the FCC continues to push.

And the consolidate-at-all-costs model isn't even good for business. Many newspapers (and their high-traffic websites) still earn healthy profits; they're struggling because they are so over-leveraged and are drowning in debt from buying up their competitors.

Rather than rescuing local outlets, cross-ownership actually drags down the performance of both the broadcasting and print businesses. Look no further than the Tribune Co., which is now just emerging from the largest bankruptcy in media history.

Or consider Media General, which was once one of the biggest advocates of gutting the cross-ownership ban; this year, they broke up their four cross-owned properties. Similarly, Belo Corp. split up its broadcasting and newspaper operations.

Cross-ownership doesn't increase news coverage either. FCC data and outside studies indicate that the presence of a cross-owned station actually pushes other stations in a market to collectively curtail their news output by about 25 percent. In other words, cross-ownership crowds out the competition and leads to less news overall.

Voices Carry

What about the Internet? Well, despite all the hype around new online journalism startups, the same voices that dominate the old media are dominating the new media as well.

According to excellent research commissioned but largely ignored by the FCC, Professor Matthew Hindman of George Washington University found that local news on the Web is "fundamentally about consuming less news from the same old sources."

The Internet has not really expanded the number of local news outlets -- at least those with any sizable audience. By far the most-visited local sites are still those run by local TV stations and newspapers.

Hindman's research undercuts industry claims that the Internet and cable TV make old broadcasting regulations obsolete. To the contrary, Hindman concludes: "Restrictions on media cross-ownership do not just matter in print and on the airwaves: they likely impact news diversity on the Web as well."

New Attitude

To be fair, Steven Waldman offers his own interesting ideas on how to sustain local journalism. It's worth exploring whether money from mergers or other transactions (like spectrum auctions) could be redirected to support journalists.

But the FCC isn't actually studying any of Waldman's proposals. His former employer isn't actually introducing any new ideas or analysis. It certainly isn't listening to the public or participating in an "honest discussion about what would truly benefit communities."

The only thing the FCC is doing is the one thing we know won't help the crisis in journalism: pushing more and more media consolidation. And that's what needs to be stopped.

So here's my counter-proposal: Instead of trying to recycle the lousy policies of the Bush administration, the FCC should just do nothing.

That's it. Don't rush to make any changes. Don't spend the next two years tied up in court, only to lose again. Press pause and see if any changes are really needed during the next review, which starts in 2014.

This should be easy: The FCC usually is really, really good at doing nothing.

If instead the FCC insists on moving forward with this doomed policy, which has been a bad idea since the '80s, then we'll have no choice but to keep fighting back.

As the poet Dee Snider, bard of Twisted Sister, once proclaimed:

We're not gonna take it /
No! We ain't gonna take it /
We're not gonna take it anymore /
No way!

 

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