Did the FCC save newspapers or kill media diversity? Ex-FCC commissioner Gloria Tristani gives us her take.
By Simon McCormack
The Federal Communications Commission made a decision last week that could forever change the country's media landscape.
The FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to allow companies to own both a TV station and a newspaper in the 20 largest media markets in the country.
The decision eliminates a 32-year-old rule that forbid this type of cross-ownership. The FCC also left open ways for cross-ownership to happen in smaller markets, including if the newspaper in the area is struggling or about to close.
In a last-minute move, the FCC made an exception for 41 companies that didn't fit into any of the rule's scenarios. The hurried nature of the waivers may make the FCC's actions challengeable in court.
The decision on Tuesday, Dec. 18, will likely affect two major trends in the media industry: The shrinking number of independently owned media outlets and the nationwide decrease in newspaper circulation.
Over the last three decades, the amount of independent news providers has decreased dramatically, and now less than a dozen companies own the lion's share of media outlets. In that same time period, at least 300 daily papers have shut their doors and newspaper revenue has started to sag.
In an FCC press release, Republican Chairman Kevin J. Martin says he believes the FCC ruling did away with policies meant for a different time in American history. He hopes fewer restrictions will help newspapers stay afloat by "enabling companies to share local news gathering costs across multiple media platforms." Even so, John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, says in a release the vote is "only a baby step in the actions needed to maintain the vitality of local news, in print and over-the-air, in all communities across the nation."
The Alibi spoke with ex-FCC Commissioner and former New Mexico resident Gloria Tristani about the implications of the new rule and what it could mean for Albuquerque residents.
Are you surprised the FCC voted in favor of the resolution?
No. The chairman had announced earlier that they were going to be looking at relaxing the rule.
Do you see the decision as a sign of a greater trend or an isolated incident?
There is a trend to try and allow for more consolidation. I think now the public is more in tune to what's going on in the FCC. If it weren't for that, the decision could have been even worse. The public has helped stop the runaway train, although it was not a good day.
What effect will the FCC's decision have? Is there any way to reverse it?
Americans and our lawmakers have made it clear they don't want media consolidation. What the FCC has done doesn't open the doors to media consolidation—because they were already open—but it's making the opening huge. Congress could undo this. There is already a bill that could pass the Senate. The question is whether it would be vetoed, and I don't think there are enough votes to override a veto.
The way the FCC has done this with the last-minute waivers, along with other factors, makes it susceptible to legal challenge. In 2003, when a previous FCC ruling of this nature was challenged, the Federal Third District Court sent the rules back to the commission.
What should people know about this decision that they probably don't?
Many Americans are not aware they can have an influence on the FCC. They can comment before the FCC, and their voices are heard. They were heard at least by the dissenting commissioners, and they were noticed by the court in 2003 when millions of Americans sent comments in. People can also hold the commissioners accountable through their elected representatives in Congress.
At the end of the day, this is not like we have two companies who make the type of soups we eat. It's more important, because it has to do with the type of news and information you're given, and that's very troubling when you see fewer and fewer independent voices out there and notice how little independent news there is. At its core, it's about democracy and how we govern ourselves.
Why were three FCC members in favor of this proposal?
Generally, those who voted for this rule would say they're old rules made when there were only a few TV and radio stations and today you have 500 cable channels and the Internet, so you have more information and more sources. That argument can be countered by saying, You may have 500 cable channels, but how many have news and how many of them have different, independent voices?
The other common rationale for this relaxation of the rules is that the market works freely and it's best to let the market resolve these issues. But in broadcasting, they are the public airwaves. Not in theory, but in practice, radio stations and TV stations are licensed. Only so many people can have them and it's good to keep those licenses local so they serve local communities.
Those who voted for the new rules will also say we've had enough studies and hearings, and our studies say this ruling should be allowed. But dissenting voters said studies were flawed.
Finally, the newspaper industry will argue this is the only way you can save newspapers. The counter arguments are that some of the synergies this rule will create don't necessarily save newspapers. Newspapers need to do other things to survive, and while many afternoon papers are closing, in general there's still a 16 percent to 18 percent rate of return for most newspaper investors. It's still a very healthy industry even with declining numbers.
Is there any way the decision will affect Albuquerque or New Mexico in particular?
Without knowing if there's a plan for the Albuquerque Journal or other papers to want to combine with a TV station, I can't tell you. However, there are exceptions built into the new rule about ownership in smaller markets, so Albuquerque could potentially be affected.
What can people do to safeguard themselves from the decision's ill effects?
The way I look at this is: If the courts don't act, or even if they do, people need to contact their local representatives. They should start asking what candidates' stances are on media and telecommunications, because very few candidates have even addressed those issues.
Many say it was the media who were part-and-parcel in the drive to go into Iraq. If you have fewer players, it's always more dangerous. People should make sure those who are in charge of implementing the policy have clear views on where they stand.
Let the FCC know how you feel about their decision by visitng www.fcc.gov.
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