At last, an FCC lifting of antiquated prohibition

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Jun 26, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

The effort to loosen the FCC rules on cross-ownership long remained an under-the-radar, stealth story. Certain newspaper owners sought an easing of the rules to allow cross-ownership - not to limit diversity of opinion but rather to preserve news outlets and enhance the quality of news provided.

That has been the experience in grandfathered Tampa, the nation's effective beta site for convergence. There, The Tampa Tribune and WFLA have converged in the Tribune newsroom. Working together (and with an online news outlet as well), they have demonstrated the positive outcomes possible in a cross-ownership environment: better news generating more informed opinion in tandem with broader access to the public via three information platforms - newspaper, television and the Internet: diversity indeed, albeit in a different form. (Disclaimer: The Tampa Tribune and WFLA are owned by Richmond-based Media General, for which I work.) Other sites in various stages of convergence: Cedar Rapids (Iowa), Lorain (Ohio), Sioux City (Nebraska), Quincy (Illinois), and Miles City (Montana).

Curiously, late opposition mobilized on grounds amounting to hostility to media diversity. Couched in terms antagonistic to the media bigboys, opponents often argued and still do, that the rise of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., with its generally conservative outlets, threatens to alter the media landscape - meaning dilution of the leftist concentrate so obvious in much of the Establishment Media. Call it the reverse diversity theory - or something. Opposition also emanates from the right based on concern about the sex, violence and indecency prevalent on big-media cable and network TV.

Any licensing power limits access to the field. The federal licensing power makes little sense generally; the FCC's licensing power makes no sense now. FCC prohibitions on ownership have worked to restrict diversity in several crucial forms - in several distinct meanings of the word - when open access would only expand the diversity so extensive on the Internet.

Finally the FCC - under the chairmanship of Colin Powell's son Michael - has eased the rules on cross-ownership by a 3-2 vote. It was a vote opposed editorially by The New York Times for, yes, largely ideological reasons. Yet in the long term, the stealth story on the FCC and cross-ownership could prove bigger than the one about the lack of ideological diversity - and the diminished credibility - of The Times itself.