Back on June 13, U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a cluster of cases related to the Federal Communications Commission's move to relax its 30-year-old ban on broadcast stations owning a newspaper in the same market.
About 10 days later, Gannett Co.'s departing CEO, Douglas McCorkindale, said the company was looking at Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications' television holdings. What makes this worth a cocked eyebrow, if not a raised hackle, is that Gannett owns the Tucson Citizen, and Emmis owns local ABC affiliate KGUN Channel 9.
And this is all happening while the FCC rewrites its cross-media ownership rules as requested by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Gannett has only one cross-media market--Phoenix, where it owns the Arizona Republic and has owned NBC affiliate KPNX since 1979. The FCC temporarily waived its cross-ownership ban when Gannett bought the Republic and the rest of the late Eugene Pulliam's Central Newspapers empire in 2000. The waiver expires when KPNX's license is up for renewal in November 2006.
In addition to Tucson, Gannett could gain cross-ownership positions in five other markets--Pensacola and Fort Myers, Fla., Honolulu, Huntington, W.Va., and Green Bay-Appleton, Wis. The Wisconsin situation is interesting, because a sizeable swatch of viewers in the state's southeast reaches depend to some extent on Green Bay TV stations. And Gannett owns at least five daily newspapers aside from the Appleton Post-Crescent and the Green Bay Press-Gazette within TV station WLUK's signal area.
Considering the events surrounding the pre-empted rule change, it raises this question: Are Gannett and other Big Media folks trying to create enough faits accompli that the FCC will fold up faster than Mike Tyson did in his last fight?
It wasn't much of a surprise that the high court declined to take the case. The FCC's outgoing chairman, Michael Powell, suggested a few months ago that it would be wiser and faster to follow the appellate court's decision than duke it out before the high court--and expediency is usually what Big Business (and by association, Big Media) likes best in its bureaucrats. Powell, son of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, was thought of as the most ardent proponent of the new deregulations.
The media landscape is very different today than it was in the late 1940s, when the FCC enacted its first ownership ban. At that time, it restricted the three major networks to no more than seven television, seven AM and seven FM stations.
Behind that decision was a belief that the diversity in ownership was the best way to preserve the marketplace of ideas. That's a polite way of saying that consolidated ownership could deprive some segments of society a legitimate public platform for free expression.
That belief held up in 1975, when the FCC said the owner of a radio station or television station could not own a daily newspaper in the same market. Under the three-tiered system that's back in rewrite, that ban would remain for markets that had three or fewer television stations. In markets with nine or more stations, the ban would be gone and ownership restricted by antitrust laws.
But there's cable television today, and the Internet. Both offer additional access to news and information and relatively unfettered platforms for free expression.
The big difference over time, however, is the relationship of the "marketplace of ideas" to the corporate bottom line. The old rules came when newspaper chains were smaller, and the crossownership ban was meant to head off variously sized Citizen Kane-styled oligarchs--media owners whose power derived from touting pet causes while either ignoring or attacking anyone with opposing views.
As noted here in the past, there's not a lot of news on the radio, once you get past news-talk, sports and public stations. Smaller television operations get their news from partnering with bigger stations. (When I worked in Bakersfield, the Fox and CBS affiliates were under a common owner. And it was strange to flip on the nightly Fox local news and see the CBS "eye" as part of the set backdrop.)
The blur worsens when you throw newspapers and their online sites into the mix. It's weird to see KVOA meteorologist Jimmy Stewart's mug on the Arizona Daily Star's weather page; ditto the appearance of KOLD's Chuck George on the Citizen's weather page. Seeing KVOA, KGUN and KMSB as "StarNet news partners" makes it even weirder. (If Gannett buys Emmis' TV stations, would StarNet have to trade KGUN to tucsoncitizen.com for KOLD?)
Ultimately, it's about the bottom line, thanks to the scourge of public ownership, especially the presence of mutual funds and other institutional investors in some media conglomerates' proxy mailing lists. Among local media holdings, institutional investors own about 82 percent of Gannett's shares, 78 percent of radio behemoth Clear Channel, 70 percent of Star parent Lee Enterprises and 76 percent of KMSB/KTTU owner Belo.
There may be some help from Washington, however.
Last year, Congress added measures to an appropriations bill that would have reversed much of what Powell and the FCC wanted to do in 2002.
And earlier this year, the Future of American Media Caucus launched in the House of Representatives. On July 14, caucus founder Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., introduced the Media Ownership Reform Act, a measure that would undo much of the radio and television consolidation of the past 20 years. Hinchey's bill would restore the Fairness Doctrine, reinstate a national cap on radio station ownership, lower the number of radio stations under single ownership in a market and drop the national television ownership market reach ceiling, now 39 percent, to 25 percent.
We the People should borrow and amend Verizon signal-testing dude's signature line and ask Big Media and the FCC, "Can you hear us now?"