News of ideological corruption in journalism burst onto the landscape with the story of favoritism at The New York Times toward Jayson Blair. It continued with the departure of The Times' Rick Bragg, a magnificent writer evidently snared in an indefensible system of datelining and bylining fostered by the same editor, Howell Raines, taken in by the world-class con-artist Blair.
Raines had to go - and he did. Still, the only avenue for the restoration of The Times' credibility is the departure, unlikely as it may be, of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger as well. Sulzberger named Raines executive editor and sanctioned his policies.
The Times saga is but the latest to have helped obscure until recently a developing journalistic story of a totally different sort - the story of long-sought changes in federal regulations regarding media ownership. At last, the Federal Communications Commission has loosened the rules affecting something called "cross-ownership."
For years, the FCC has overseen broadcast ownership through its licensing of radio and television stations. In that capacity, the FCC also has written rules about who can own what - and those rules have affected newspapers. Except for about 40 markets in which newspapers owned a television or radio station at the time the rules were drawn, the FCC has banned a newspaper from owning stations in the same city.
The ostensible reason has been the maintenance of diverse ownership of media outlets. The operative theory has been that it is inherently bad to have a newspaper and a broadcast station under the same ownership, because that reduces precisely the competition enhancing - even guaranteeing - freedom of the press.
Whether such a rationale and the consequent ownership rules ever made sense, they certainly don't make sense now.
With the rules in place, free-market radio news has practically disappeared. Reduced local ownership of broadcast outlets has meant a corresponding reduction in minority ownership - so that element of diversity has not been enhanced. And competition among newspapers has greatly diminished, with many newspapers gone.
What's more, the FCC rules prohibiting cross-ownership - e.g., the ownership of a television station by a newspaper - were written before the advent of the Internet, before satellite television, and in the early years of cable. In the period since the rules were written, a period that has seen many traditional news sources leave the field, public debate in the media has hardly been stifled; on the contrary, it has exploded - even among the 40 "grandfathered" markets, large and small, with cross-ownership of newspapers and TV.
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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