By: Mark Fitzgerald
The Seattle Times on Sunday kicked off what will be a series of editorials and op-ed columns about the press’ role in democracy with an editorial excoriating the consolidation of media ownership — and urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to keep the ban on same-market ownership of newspaper and broadcast.
“Ownership still matters. The corporatization of news has laid bare how woefully unwilling strictly market-driven conglomerates are to fielding aggressive news organizations with a public-service mission,” the editorial states.
Times Chairman, CEO and Publisher Frank Blethen has long been an outspoken advocate of keeping the 32-year-old ban on cross-ownership — a position that puts him at odds with many newspaper owners and the industry’s biggest publishers group, the Newspaper Association of America.
The editorial suggests the Republican majority on the FCC wants ownership consolidation to “transform the news into a commodity every bit as purchasable, and salable, as toilet paper.” It’s already worked with radio and television, the editorial says.
“Radio has been consolidated to minuscule numbers of owners who favor generic play lists. Adding to the corrosion of American creativity is the loss of radio news — too expensive for the big companies,” it states. “Television news has devolved into a cliche. Weather, crime and car accidents fill airspace that was once the domain of substantive reports from city hall and the capitol.”
As for newspapers, the editorial says, “The majority of readers need a score card to keep track of which corporation owns their newspaper.”
The editorial does not explicitly call for government regulation of newspapers, aside from the continued cross-ownership ban, but there are hints that citizens need to have a say in how the press operates in a democracy.
The series, which the Times is calling “The Democracy Papers,” was prompted by “the overwhelming trends in media consolidation and in fragile instruments of democracy such as low-power radio,” Times Editorial Page Editor James Vesely wrote in a column Sunday.
“In the coming weeks, we will test that theory, that a free press is waning in America and with it the strength of our democracy,” he wrote. “Writers on media consolidation, the music industry, the role of the press as unofficial signatory to democratic government, and the future of broadcast and print will be examined in editorials and guest essays.”
Sunday’s opinion package also included a column supporting the cross-ownership ban by FCC Commission Michael J. Copps, a Democrat.
In the column, Copps asks whether the Founding Fathers would be proud of our current “media system.” He answers his own question:
“I fear not. We have a system that has been buffeted by an endless cycle of consolidation, budget-cutting, and bureau-closing. We have witnessed the number of statehouse and city hall reporters declining decade after decade, despite an explosion in state and local lobbying. As the number of channels has multiplied, there is far less total local programming and reporting being produced. These days, if it bleeds, it leads.”