News in the Hands of Too Few?

How a loosening of FCC rules could affect the public good.

FE_DA_080114media.jpg

The Wall Street Journal, owned by News Corp.

By SHARE

As America prepares for the year of intense democracy that is a presidential election, the question of how and what information reaches the public is crucial. So when the Federal Communications Commission last month proposed to loosen restrictions on media ownership, the reaction was deeply divided. FCC Chair Kevin Martin said the new rules, which would lift a 32-year ban on cross-ownership, would improve news coverage and help the struggling newspaper industry, which he called the "watchdog and informer of the citizenry." But what happens when fewer companies are responsible for the watching and informing?

The new rules, which allow companies to own a newspaper and a radio station in the 20 largest cities, follow a decade of haggling over how many media outlets one company can control in a single market. Supporters say the modifications are long overdue. Opponents argue that easing the ban will lead to more consolidation, stifling local news and limiting voices in the public sphere. They fear that a handful of media moguls, such as Rupert Murdoch of News Corp., which owns Fox Broadcasting, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal, will further extend their reach. "If you consider information to be an important underpinning of a democracy and you do anything that skews the providing of information, then it is scary," says Sandra Davidson, associate professor of media law at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Press baron. Tensions over media ownership have deepened amid rapid changes in how people get their news. Since 1975, when the FCC instituted the ban to promote economic competition and diversity of views, the country has seen an explosion of outlets, including cable television, satellite radio, and the Internet. But the proliferation of outlets has not been accompanied by an increase in the number of journalists. Says Tom Goldstein, director of mass communications at the University of California-Berkeley: "Resources are in the distribution rather than the collection of news."

The public first became concerned with media consolidation in the 1920s when William Randolph Hearst started one of the first print-media companies to enter radio. While private ownership broke links between newspapers and political parties or government authorities, the owners' opinions often colored coverage of the news. Today, about a dozen media corporations—the largest is Gannett Co., followed by the Tribune Co.—own roughly one third of the country's more than 1,400 daily newspapers. Some argue that the reduction in the number of news outlets could lead to fewer critical opinions, with grim implications for democracy. "It's not necessarily a bad thing that an editor has a strong point of view about politics," says Mara Einstein, associate professor of media studies at Queens College in New York, if that editor operates in a market with several options. "You read one person's point of view and then another person's, and you can come up with your own idea of what you believe is best." Online sites may fill in where mainstream news leaves off, but Davidson points to problems "weighing the gravity and the authority of the voices."

Diversity. The FCC has long struggled to promote access to diverse news sources. Starting in the mid-1990s, the panel has been trying unsuccessfully to change the formulas governing cross-ownership, and it has often been attacked on all fronts. In 2003, the panel proposed allowing one company to own three television stations, eight radio stations, and the monopoly newspaper in a single market. A federal appeals court rejected the rules, while agreeing that the blanket ban on cross-ownership was outdated.

Martin calls the latest FCC offering a "relatively minor loosening" of the ban. The proposal would allow one company to own a newspaper and broadcast station in the same market, as long as it's one of the country's 20 largest markets. The station could not be among the top four in the market, and at least eight independent media voices would have to remain after the merger. Cross-ownership would be allowed in smaller markets if companies could prove that it would lead to more local news coverage and would not endanger any local newspapers they own. John Sturm, president of the Newspaper Association of America, told a congressional panel that easing the rules would allow television stations and newspapers to join forces and provide better news coverage. And media companies, he says, "have strong incentives to offer divergent viewpoints."