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Daily Democracy

Ryan Blethen discusses the press, media and democracy. Daily Democracy is part of the Democracy Papers, a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech and the press. E-mail Ryan

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December 17, 2007

Spotlight on the FCC

Posted by Ryan at 4:42 PM

The Federal Communications Commission is getting a lot of attention today because of tomorrow's vote. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is getting blasted with more requests to hold off on the vote. The most interesting letter from 26 senators, including Maria Cantwell, Barack Obama, and Joseph Biden. The letter, which can be found here, tells Martin to pull back or the Senate will pass a law nullifying his proposal if it passes.

Martin also received a letter from the National Hispanic Media Coalition, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Black Leadership Forum and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. I could not find a copy of the letter online and did not want to cut and paste it into this post for the sake of length. Needless to say the above mentioned groups are against tomorrow's vote and media consolidation.

One of today's more fascinating FCC stories was in Saturday's Denver Post. The paper's TV critic Joanne Ostrow has a nice piece with some good insight:

"Remember when it was not considered naïve to suggest that broadcast licenses were not licenses to print money, but permission to operate in what the original Communications Act called 'the public interest, convenience and necessity'?"

What makes Ostrow's pointed comments about the FCC interesting is the position taken by her publisher Dean Singleton. Singleton owns MediaNews, a giant newspaper chain, and has long been a cross-ownership proponent. Singleton probably falls into the same camp as his buddies at the Newspaper Association of America, which was upset that Martin's plan did not go far enough.

Ostrow does miss the mark when she wonders where the public outcry was on this go-around on cross-ownership compared to 2003 when nearly 3 million people contacted the FCC.

"The last time the FCC tried to push through this sort of deregulation in 2003, 3 million Americans weighed in opposing any change. This time, there doesn't seem to be much public outcry."

There has been a massive public outcry. The six media ownership hearings the FCC held across the country the past year were packed. Nearly all the testimony was in favor of strong cross-ownership laws. According to Free Press more than 100,000 people have contacted the FCC and Congress through the campaign. Martin's tight schedule on media ownership has probably been an effective deterrent to more public comment.

The public reaction appears muted because of the sorry coverage the media ownership issues get in the press. Very few of the nation's big newspapers covered all six of the media ownership hearings. There has also been scant coverage of related issues such as the low number of women and minorities that own media outlets, or how the country music scene has suffered because of consolidation. Had these topics and more been on the pages of America's newspapers the public's true concern about media consolidation would have been better known. Coverage at this point does little good to inform the public, Congress or the FCC.

The New York Times had an edit opposing changes to the cross-ownership rule. I rolled my eyes at the first few grafs, which talk about how the media landscape has changed since the cross-ownership ban was adopted in the 1970s. That is how most editorials supporting a lifting of the ban begin. But the Times shifts gears and comes out against Martin's plan. Fine with me. Do not really care how the Times got there, just that they did.

My favorite reading today came from Harold Feld at Wetmachine. I can't help mentioning Feld's Wetmachine posts. I find his insights useful, and his analysis spot on. His latest posts looks at Martin's consistent approach to his time at the FCC. Well worth a read.

FCC cross-ownership vote

Posted by Ryan at 11:54 AM

Tomorrow is a critical day for democracy. The Federal Communications Commission will vote on a plan that could eviscerate America's independent press. Before the five commissioners is a proposal from Chairman Kevin Martin that would eliminate the cross-ownership ban in the nation's top 20 media markets. This means a company could own a newspaper, broadcast outlet, and an Internet Service Provider in the same market. This is bad policy, made worse by a loophole that allows for low bar cross-ownership waivers outside the top 20 markets.

The press and public's best hope is that either Republican commissioners Robert McDowell or Deborah Tate join the two Democrats as "no" votes. The Seattle Times urged Tate and McDowell in an editorial Sunday that can be found here.

My guess is that Tate and McDowell will vote with Martin. Hopefully it does not even get to that point. Martin has received a ton of pressure from the public and Congress to delay the vote. He has rebuffed all pleas. I am not optimistic he will change his mind by tomorrow morning.

December 14, 2007

FCC oversight hearing wrap-up

Posted by Ryan at 2:40 PM

Most of the big newspapers have stories about Thursday's Senate Commerce Committee FCC oversight hearing. The theme to most was Kevin Martin's refusal to put off Tuesday's vote on cross-ownership. Most of the committee asked Martin to do so. The Washington Post story can be found here, Los Angeles Times here, and the AP here.
Bob Williams at Consumer Union's Hear Us Now blog has a nice little summary of the hearing.

I was not surprised by Marin's firm rebuff of the senators. He has shown little interest in serving the public by ignore testimony at hearings, and overlooking his own studies that prove the damage done by media consolidation. Angry questions from the Senate at this late date are not going to change his mind.

I thought the most interesting development at the oversight hearing was something said by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V. He suggested putting any commissioner nominations on hold while the committee works on an overhaul of the FCC. Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said that he liked Rockefeller's idea. Broadcasting and Cable have a story about it here.

Martin might be able to head off such drastic action by listening to the near unanimous chorus against media consolidation. A good start would be postponing Tuesday's vote and going through a credible evaluation of the agencies rules.

Look for an edit about Tuesday's vote in Sunday's Seattle Times.

Murdoch's Wall Street Journal

Posted by Ryan at 2:04 PM

The Wall Street Journal is now officially Rupert Murdoch's. News Corporation completed its deal to buy Dow Jones, which is the parent company of the WSJ.

Here is the New York Times story.

December 13, 2007

Junk Media

Posted by Ryan at 4:18 PM just released a funny video. It takes aim at the poor quality of news produced by the media biggies. Check it out.

FCC oversight hearing & Cantwell

Posted by Ryan at 10:12 AM

Maria Cantwell again proved to be an articulate and pointed advocate against media consolidation. She questioned Kevin Martin's logic about the threat of the Internet to newspapers, and using that supposed threat to allow for consolidation. She chastised him for using the Internet as a "boogyman," then pointed out that in 2006 newspapers had an operating profit margin of 17.8 percent.

I can imagine a lot of big media companies would want to own newspapers.

Martin, as he has throughout the hearing, said he has no choice but to go forward on lifting the cross-ownership ban because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to update its rules when needed. Seems to be his fallback non-answer, answer.

Cantwell was not impressed:

I think you are getting it absolutely wrong.
Enough said.

FCC oversight hearing III

Posted by Ryan at 8:44 AM

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., was the first senator to question the commissioners. He circled back on something said by Kevin Martin in his opening statement. The chairman had said that cross-ownership is needed to save newspapers. Lott pointed out that newspapers are not the FCC's concern, then cracked a joke:

"I don't get why Republicans would be crying alligator tears over newspapers."

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, just said that the FCC should take more time on any decision. He then went on to say that newspapers are struggling because there is nothing worth reading. Viewers should remember that Stevens has been in Alaska's newspapers a lot during the last year. The coverage has not been flattering.

Lott also mentioned that newspapers are killing themselves. He is partly right. There are many bad newspapers. What Lott and Stevens need to understand is that cross-ownership and conglomeration leads to bad, or light journalism.

FCC oversight hearing II

Posted by Ryan at 8:28 AM

The opening statements from the commissioners was as expected. Kevin Martin said that he is simply doing what is mandated by Congress, and that the process was much more open than the last time the FCC tried to increase media consolidation in 2003.

Democrats, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, are upset, as they should be. Copps implored the Senate to stop what he probably will not be able to obstruct. Adelstein did good by pointing out the obvious. Nowhere in the country are people clamoring for the FCC to get rid of the cross-ownership band, an action that would allow a company to own a newspaper, broadcast outlet, and an Internet Service Provider in the same market.

I am not sure Republican commissioner Deborah Tate has paid attention to what she has seen this past year. She chirped on about the 'iGeneration' and the incredible diversity of media 'platforms.' She proudly mentioned that one of the FCC's media ownership hearings was held in her home town of Nashville. Be interesting how she votes on Martin's plan Tuesday. The commission was told in great detail how media consolidation has hurt the country music industry, and the press in Nashville. That hearing should have been enough to convince her to vote against Martin's plan. The most bizarre thing she suggested was a Wall Street conference to find ways to get women and minorities invested in the media. Why would Wall Street spend time on something that it has never thought made sense to the bottom line.

Commissioner Robert McDowell gave a safe statement about how the media landscape is different now than it was 30 years ago.

Commerce Committee FCC oversight hearing

Posted by Ryan at 8:01 AM

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee's Federal Communication Commission oversight hearing got off to a late start. No surprise considering the meeting involves the FCC, which has had a heck of a time staring its meetings on time. I am not in Washington, D.C. Sitting on my couch watching the hearing on C-SPAN 3.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., opened the hearing with a statement before he left for an appropriations meeting. Dorgan set the tone saying that he believes FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's plan to jettison the cross-ownership ban is a very bad idea. He urged his colleagues to be tough on the FCC commissioners.

I think there are a lot of questions here that need to be asked.
He concluded by saying that the commissioners should reject the chairman's plan, and give media ownership a more substantive review.

If the commissioners do not, Dorgan might be able to derail Martin's efforts to increase media consolidation. The commerce committee has approved his bill, the Media Ownership Act of 2007, which would force the FCC to take more time on rule changes, and create a panel to study media ownership for minorities and women.

December 12, 2007

Cross-ownership vote

Posted by Ryan at 3:59 PM

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin has scheduled a Tuesday vote on cross-ownership. Reuters has a story here. The move comes as no surprise. Martin had said for more than a month that he would be seeking a Dec. 18 vote.

The hope was that after listening to the nearly unanimous public outcry for keeping the cross-ownership rule - which bans a company from owning a newspaper, television station, and radio station, in the same market - that Martin would relent, or at the very least slow down. That hope was squashed after Martin reveled his plan encouraging media consolidation only four days after the last FCC media ownership hearing in Seattle on Nov. 9.

My guess is that he will have the votes from the other two Republicans on the commission. The Democrats will surely vote no. That leaves it in the hands of Congress. There is a bill moving through the Senate that would blow up Martin's plan. It passed the Commerce Committee but still needs to be approved by the full Senate.

Now would be a good time to contact your Congressmen and Senators and tell them what the FCC has ignored: Media consolidation must be stopped.

Nanny state

Posted by Ryan at 3:19 PM

Harold Feld at Wetmachine has a good post on the SAFE Act, which was passed last week by Congress. The bill would force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to keep tabs on who is downloading child pornography, and report offenders to the authorities.

My knee-jerk reaction is that this is a bad piece of legislation. Child pornography is not going to be stopped, let alone curtailed, by ISPs working as the eyes of government. WiFi is a powerful tool to get communities not served by broadband on the Internet. This disincentives can be used as another excuse by media conglomerates to avoid areas that are not demographically on the high-end.

Feld's post was helpful because this is an issue I have not been following. I agree with Feld's assessment that the Democratic leadership looks bad by pushing this bill through with parliamentary tricks. Feld, who works for the Media Access Project, raises some important questions about the effect the bill will have on WiFi, and certain communities. Feld writes:

Adding another expensive infrastructure change would be a serious killer. If that's the case, then many valuable projects that service thousands of women and children living in impoverished communities will lose their access. Ms. Pelosi and the luddites supporting this bill may not understand why this is important, but I would invite them to go to the neighborhoods serviced by these projects and tell the people living there that the lifeline they have to educational opportunities, medical resources, and hope for economic advancement is getting snuffed out because middle class white folks think it's worth it on the off chance it will prevent some child pornography trafficking. I'm sure that will be a big winner next November.

His post is lengthy, but worth the read.

Harry Potter casts a media reform spell

Posted by Ryan at 11:22 AM

Barack Obama has Oprah. The media reform movement has Harry Potter. A little magic never hurts. Especially when battling the media biggies, with their deep pockets and many press outlets. and the Harry Potter Alliance have joined forces and launched a new Web site called Potterwatch. The Web site is aimed at getting Harry's many loyal fans moving against America's Voldemort like media.

In a press release the Harry Potter Alliance's creator and director, Andrew Slack, said:

The Harry Potter books offer a vivid example of what can happen when too much media rests in the hands of too few. In the series, Wizarding newspapers like the Daily Prophet put the magical community in serious jeopardy by denying Voldemort's return, failing to cover abuses from the Ministry and ultimately becoming a mouthpiece for Voldemort.

My initial reaction to the press release was one of laughter. That changed after visiting Potterwatch. The idea that an independent press is vital to a free society is not the sole possession of journalists, or media reformers. It is something people intuitively get, regardless of age or career.

If it takes Harry Potter to awaken a generation to the dire consequences of media consolidation, so be it.

Tribune's new real-estate manager

Posted by Ryan at 9:54 AM

I finally read The New Yorker's profile of Sam Zell, which can be found here. For those who do not know, Zell is the real-estate mogul who is buying the Tribune Company, which owns numerous broadcast outlets across the country, and many metropolitan newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. The transaction should be wrapped by year end, especially now that the Federal Communications Commission granted temporary cross-ownership waivers for the deal.

Dean Baquet, former Los Angeles Times editor now the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the New York Times, said that the Tribune employees in L.A. want the sale to go through. They should be careful what they wish for. Life at the Los Angeles Times under Tribune has not been easy, but probably will not be much better as a Zell controlled company.

Zell did tell the New Yorker in November that the Tribune newspapers should be run by executives in each city. The hope that company headquarters in Chicago will leave journalists alone in Los Angeles has to be tempered with Zell's past actions, and what others close to him said about his pending purchase of Tribune.

Maggie Wilderotter, chairwoman and C.E.O. of Citizens Communications has been on three boards of Zell owned companies. She told the New Yorker that Zell is not driven by any notion of doing good journalism.

An important part of the Tribune portfolio is TV station. He's buying a media company that has assets other than newspapers.

She continued:

But that's not what drives Sam. His thought process throughout this whole thing has always been about the business proposition. I never, ever heard Sam say, 'I'm doing this because I love the Chicago Tribune,' or 'I'm committed to the city of Chicago.' It would have been totally out of character.

Not exactly comforting words for Tribune's journalists.

The folks at another Tribune newspaper, Newsday, should be even more suspicious of Zell. An unnamed source is quoted saying that Rupert Murdoch is warming up to Zell because he wants a piece of the Long Island paper. A troublesome partnership considering Murdoch's already extensive holdings in the New York City area. Murdoch's News Corporation owns two television stations, the New York Post and will soon have the Wall Street Journal.

Will Zell be a better owner than the current Tribune executives? I have no idea. What is worrisome is Zell's only other experience with the press. According to the profile he bought a 94 percent stake in a Cincinnati radio-station company in 1993. He paid down some debt, brought in new management then went on a buying spree after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The company went from owning 17 stations to 234. Zell sold the chain to Clear Channel in 1999, making $1.3 billion.

Tribune employees should hold on. They might be in for a turbulent ride.

December 11, 2007

Obama's Seattle visit

Posted by Ryan at 11:16 AM

Barack Obama is in Seattle briefly today for Generation Obama. This event at the Showbox SoDo is a great opportunity for the senator from Illinois to talk about media consolidation. Obama has been very vocal on the topic. He was one of the co-sponsors of the Media Ownership Act of 2007, which if passed by the Senate, could derail FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's plan to increase consolidation by lifting the cross-ownership ban.

After the Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill last week Obama said:

The rules promoting the public interest and diversity in media ownership are too important to allow the FCC chairman to force through an agenda supported by Washington lobbyists that favors corporate interests over the people's interests. I commend the Senate Commerce Committee for passing the Dorgan-Lott-Obama Media Ownership Act. The bill requires what I have been urging for more than one year - that the FCC place its public charge ahead of its concern for corporate profits.

This message will find a friendly audience tonight. He should use these opportunities to expand on this message, make it his own, and force the rest of the presidential hopefuls to address media consolidation head-on.

This week in Washington, D.C.

Posted by Ryan at 10:29 AM

Minority media ownership, localism, and media consolidation will be front and center this week in Washington, D.C. Both the House and Senate will be holding hearings on the issues.

The U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee's Antitrust Task Force will have a hearing on media consolidation, and its impact on localism and minority ownership tomorrow. The hearing is at 2 p.m. in room 2141 Rayburn House Office Building.

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee is holding an oversight hearing for the Federal Communications Commission. The committee will listen to the five FCC commissioners talk about media and telecommunications policy. The hearing is at 10 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 13 in room 253 of the Russell Senate Office Building.

Dan Rather, along with S. Derek Turner of Free Press will be testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. Should be interesting. Rather is not one to hold back.

Hopefully the Commerce oversight hearing cements the Senate's worry about the FCC chairman's plan to get rid of cross-ownership rules. The committee approved a bipartisan bill last week that would force the FCC to slow down and consider the effects of cross-ownership on local programming. The Media Ownership Act of 2007 would also force the FCC to create a panel to study how more minorities and women could become owners of broadcast outlets.

The Senate needs to move on this bill. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants a vote on his cross-ownership plan by next Tuesday.

December 10, 2007

Dysfunction at the FCC

Posted by Ryan at 3:55 PM

Jim Puzzanghera of the Los Angeles Times has a story today about how dysfunctional the Federal Communications Commission is under the leadership of Kevin Martin. Not a revelation for anybody that has been following the commission. Puzzanghera got some disturbing insider quotes, like:

He is a lone operator, said an FCC insider who did not want to publicly criticize Martin. Sometimes even his own staff doesn't really know what he's thinking and what's he's going to do next.

Yikes. Americans should be worried that a government agency with so much influence on our democracy is essentially being guided by one voice.

Comment response

Posted by Ryan at 1:19 PM

Expect to see more entries here at Daily Democracy now that I am back from vacation and have wrapped up another project. A lot happened last week on the media consolidation/FCC front. Will post on that once I get caught up.

First, I would like to respond to some comments left here about my disappointment with Hilary Clinton's weak response to a question about media consolidation. Matt Zemek wrote:

Ryan, You are aware that Hillary has accepted cash from Mr. Murdoch, at least $500,000, if I'm not mistaken (this happened several months ago). This would explain her non-answer answer.

Nice to hear from you, Matt. I am not aware of the amount of money that Rupert Murdoch has given to Clinton, but was aware he held a fund-raiser for her. I think you are correct about this being part of the reason for her non-answer. Here is a New York Times story about Murdoch's Clinton fund-raiser.

Not everybody agrees with Matt and me. Michael wrote:

All Presidential candidates accept money from someone who has corporate interests. They are standing in line, trying to give Hillary money for her campaign. It would be illegal for Murdoch to give her $500,000 for her campaign and he wouldn't do that, anyway.

Why wouldn't Murdoch do it? I would assume that Murdoch would want to be in Clinton's good graces if she becomes president. A number of stories out of New York and Washington, D.C. have mentioned how Murdoch's New York Post has warmed to Clinton.

Clinton's unwillingness to move beyond a canned response on media consolidation is disappointing. Especially considering that a number of other Democrats seeking the presidency such as Barack Obama and Joseph Biden have come out strong against media consolidation. This should be an easy call for any candidate, Republican or Democrat.

Another comment left to the Clinton post dealt with media consolidation, but not in the presidential race. Jack wrote:

Has Ryan Blethen forgotten that his company owns several other newspapers in Washington state? Is this not media consolidation? Doesn't Yakima and Walla Walla deserve a local, independent newspaper?

No Jack, I have not forgotten, and I am not worried about my family's ownership of these newspapers. The Yakima Herald-Republic, and Walla Walla Union Bulletin are not in the same market. There is no overlap in circulation, or management. Both newspapers are operated independently of Seattle. Owning three daily papers in Washington is hardly comparable to the obscene number of broadcast outlets, and newspapers owned by the conglomerates that dominate this country.

UPDATE: Here are links to Columbia Journalism Review and Free Press. Both Web sites keep a list of what the media biggies own.