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In Tribune Meeting, FCC Chief Tips Hand to Big Media, Against Diversity

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On Thursday, Chicagoans packed into an auditorium to voice concerns about media consolidation before the leadership of the Federal Communications Commission.

Hundreds were there to urge the agency's five commissioners to foster more diversity over the air, by deciding to stop any further amassing of local TV, radio and newspaper outlets under a single corporate owner.

FCC FCC: Listen Up!
But it seems that this FCC decision has already been cast. During a meeting with Tribune editors earlier in the day, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin hinted very strongly that he plans to lift the existing "cross-ownership" ban that has been on the books for more than 30 years.

Such a change to the rules would unleash a new wave of consolidation in local markets.

A Nod to the Tribune

Martin reportedly told his private Tribune audience that he wants to relieve the strain placed on newspapers by the digital marketplace for news -- a claim that has been soundly disputed by a recent Free Press study on Chicago news diversity.

"Many of the properties that Tribune owns date back to that original cross-ownership here in Chicago," he said, referring to the company's many local holdings -- including the Chicago Tribune newspaper and TV stations WGN-AM 720 and WGN-Ch. 9 -- which were exempted from the 1975 cross-ownership ban.

"[T]here have been many positive aspects of that cross-ownership, as demonstrated by the ability to try to have other outlets for the news, which has been very important in trying to sustain the investment in news-gathering that's occurred."

Earlier this year, Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell offered to buy all Tribune Company properties -- including its 16 dailies and 23 television stations, many in the same markets. Zell wants to take the company private. The success of Zell's bid hinges upon the FCC's action to either lift cross-ownership bans or extend waivers to Tribune in key markets where the company owns several properties.

If Martin's FCC proceeds in lifting cross-ownership, the Tribune or any other single company could own the main daily newspaper, eight radio stations, three television stations and a major cable provider in the same town.

Off the Dial and Out of the Picture

This would accelerate the leeching of diverse perspectives from mainstream media. Minority ownership of radio and television stations is already at a dismal low. According to Free Press, racial or ethnic minorities own just 7.7 percent of all full-power commercial broadcast radio stations and just 3.26 percent of all TV stations, though they account for 33 percent of the U.S. population.

The exclusion of minority owners is reflected in the comments of Don Imus, Michael Savage, Melanie Morgan and Rush Limbaugh and many other media shock jocks who have found a home on the mainstream dial.

The findings -- and their repercussions -- are a national scandal. They indict the FCC for handing media power to those who already have too much, rather than redressing decades of discrimination in access to the public airwaves.

A move by Martin to lift cross-ownership bans would further disgrace the agency that was put in place to safeguard diversity over the air.

Last night's boisterous public hearing in a Chicago auditorium should be the event that decides the fate of our media -- and not closed-door meetings between an FCC chairman and conglomerates.