Bad Example

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission changed the rules on who would be allowed to own television stations. The new rules all but drop restrictions on how much of a community's media may be controlled by a single owner.

In larger cities, as many as three television stations may henceforth be controlled by the same company that owns the local newspaper. In communities the size of Spokane, the FCC will now approve "cross-ownership" of a newspaper and a major TV station.

These changes were opposed by a broad coalition, ranging from the National Rifle Association to the National Organization of Women. One member of the FCC estimated that 99 percent of the official comments to the commission were against the changes.

Without denying the overwhelming opposition, the three Republicans on the five-member FCC panel changed the rules on the basis of their own staff analysis that told them consolidation would actually make for stronger media. Commission member Kathleen Abernathy dismissed the popular outcry as "fear and speculation about hypothetical media monopolies."

But it is not hypothetical in Spokane. Because Spokane was exempted from the restrictions adopted 30 years ago, it is a sort of model or test case for the kind of media arrangement now officially sanctioned by the FCC.

Last month, a U.S. Senate Committee was having a critical look at the new rules about to be adopted by the FCC. Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen was testifying against the changes. Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire, who favored the new rules, challenged Blethen to name a place where cross-ownership had hurt the media.

"Spokane, Washington," Blethen answered.

Blethen added he would just as soon not make further comment "to save a few friends."

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a skeptic on the new FCC rules, persisted, "What happened in Spokane, Washington?"

Reluctantly, Blethen explained: "The family that owns the newspaper and TV station has been involved in a major city redevelopment that has become very controversial. Even Editor & amp; Publisher magazine, which never criticizes the industry, criticized them for not covering it." Clearly uncomfortable tattling on a fellow publisher, Blethen left it there.

That's a shame. It's hard to think of anything that might have been more useful to a national debate on cross-ownership than an actual experience. When President Kennedy visited the Berlin Wall in 1963, he said that if there were still people who believed communism worked, "Let them come to Berlin." To anyone who believes there are no hazards involved in cross-ownership, we might say, "Let them come to Spokane."

Spokane's civic crises over the last five years -- the cynicism, the lawsuits, the ticking financial crisis -- are traceable directly to inadequate media arrangements. The connection between the newspaper and its hottest issue, River Park Square, disengaged the mechanism that was designed to prevent a crisis.

Cross-ownership did not cause this problem, but it contributed to it. Through its ownership of the newspaper, KHQ and the Journal of Business, the family that was making the most news in Spokane was also the family that owned about two-thirds of its media. That was two-thirds of the city's available reporters who were in a position similar to Blethen's of being a little uncomfortable on the whole subject of River Park Square.

This does not mean that reporters who worked in any of these newsrooms had to say anything untrue or even avoid printing any particular news. But it disengaged the system of carping press and popular involvement that is designed to prevent misunderstandings like River Park Square. Any newspaper reporter with no other considerations but finding a good story would have asked questions about such a big and unusual "public-private partnership." These questions would have had the city council explaining, back-peddling and renegotiating with the developer -- and everyone would have been happier today.

The problem with a corporate, synergistic, cross-owned, Rupert Murdock-model mega-media is that it is never quite free. In a tangled organization chart, there is always likely to be some little consideration that gives a reporter pause when he or she just wants to blurt out a story.

The FCC's argument that they were increasing press freedom by dropping regulations is bogus. The freedom of reporters diminishes every time a personal or corporate name is added to the list of ownership.

The FCC's equating of "freedom" and market forces actually eliminates everyone who does not have access to enormous pools of capital. This not only eliminates those who might voice other values, but it also carries a debilitating conflict of interest. One of the media's jobs is to keep an eye on enormous pools of capital.

This is not a mere journalistic problem. A free press is an assumption at the core of the American system. Madison and Jefferson both put enormous stock in the press as the ultimate safety mechanism that could counter almost any threat to the nation. The idea was that the press would set off an alarm and that citizens' common sense and power in numbers would force would-be tyrants to back down. "Where the press is free, and every man able to read," Jefferson assured, "all is safe."

If Jefferson were on the commission today, would he have dropped limitations on corporate ownership and considered it a blow for freedom?

William Stimson is a professor of journalism at EWU.