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Kochs and Cross-Ownership: Formula for a Weaker Democracy

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I was disappointed last week to see that former Federal Communications Chairman Reed Hundt, my friend and predecessor at the FCC, has joined forces with opponents of the Commission's longstanding cross-ownership rules.

Hundt argues that greater media consolidation, including common ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same market, should be permitted "in celebration of our commitment to freedom." Our commitment to freedom rests on informed citizens and a vibrant media. The "freedom to own the means of speech" that Hundt celebrates misses the entire point and purpose of the First Amendment.

In my experience, freedom flourishes best when citizens have ready access to multiple sources of news and information, something they'd lose in many areas if Hundt gets his way on the cross-ownership rule.

For over 35 years, the FCC has prevented any one entity from dominating the media in a given market. These common-sense rules ensure a diversity of voices inform our marketplace of ideas. Should a single entity or individual buy up the daily newspaper, a few radio stations, and the television stations in a city, the public will suffer. An informed electorate requires an empowered press, with multiple outlets competing for stories. In a media monopoly, one reporter files a story - usually in the paper - and it is repeated verbatim on the radio, television, cable and on the Internet, too. Any errors or omissions in the original reporting are likely to spread across all our media.

Moreover, these rules are an important part of promoting diversity in media ownership. Our media should reflect this nation's cherished diversity. Cross-ownership rules are by no means enough, and at a time when racial minorities own just over 2 percent of full-power television stations, the commission should be doing more, not less, to encourage minority and female ownership.

Hundt naively suggests that "[i]f a profitable broadcaster wants to buy a newspaper in its city - to expand the attention it can obtain from an audience or to have more impact on the way people think - the FCC should welcome this extra support for the troubled newspaper industry." It's a fine idea in theory, but we know what happens in practice - when broadcast and print newsrooms combine, the corporate paymasters behind the deal demand "efficiencies" in the form of layoffs.

In recent years, tens of thousands of reporters have been laid off, journalists who should be holding power accountable. This is not an abstract concern. The Newspaper Association of America stated publicly that "the true value of newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership comes from the economies of scale of sharing newsgathering resources." Job loss is not an incidental consequence of media monopolization; it is the industry's explicit goal.

Allowing ever-more monopolization of our media ecosystem will not celebrate "our commitment to freedom" - it will undermine liberty's staunchest sentinel, a vibrant press. Hundt may want to debate whether it is better to have the Koch Brothers or Rupert Murdoch owning the Tribune newspaper chain. I say neither.