Yet another important story getting buried in these days of War and Patriotism is the Federal Communications Commission’s continuing campaign to get rid of regulations hindering the increasing monopolization of the news industry.
On Sept. 13, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it was considering changes to its 1975 rule that barred common ownership of a broadcast station and a daily newspaper in the same market. On Nov. 11, the FCC announced it was reexamining its “rules and policies concerning multiple ownership of radio stations in local markets.”
This is not unexpected. When W. Bush appointed Michael Powell to head up the FCC early this year, Powell (yes, he’s Secretary of State Colin Powell’s son), the few mainstream stories on the appointment made it clear Powell was expected to head up the effort to relax ownership restrictions designed to help ensure diversity of editorial voices.
According to the New York Times Feb. 7 story, “FCC May Move to Right Under New Chief,” Powell said at his first news conference that he was “quite skeptical that anyone has any demonstrable case” that any multiple ownership restrictions “actually inure to the benefit of consumers in the form of greater and more diverse product.”
I imagine AVA readers are already convinced that diversity of media ownership is a fundamentally Good Thing, so I won’t bother with arguments here. Our local newsprint monopoly giant is the national Media News Group chain, headed by the infamous Dean “all that matters is the money” Singleton, who became big by buying groups of small local papers in the same area, cutting costs and staff expenditures to the bleeding bone, and then raising ad rates. On the North Coast, MNG now owns the Ukiah Daily Journal (the biggest paper in Mendocino County), the Lake County Record-Bee (the biggest paper in Lake County), the Eureka Times-Standard (the biggest paper in Humboldt County), the Willits News, the Fort Bragg Advocate News, the Clearlake Observer, and the Mendocino Beacon.
The county’s local commercial radio stations still have a certain variety of ownership, but that’s likely to change if FCC rules regarding how many radio stations a company can own in one market are relaxed even further. A recent story in the Sacramento Business Journal says the first round of radio ownership deregulation ten years ago resulted in dramatic consolidation in the Sacramento area. “Sacramento used to have at least 20 independent radio stations,” Business Journal reporter Mark Larson writes. “Now three companies own most of the market — Clear Channel Communication, Entercom and CBS.”
Larson also cites a “media executive” with a new company called Moon Shot Communications which is currently arranging to buy groups of independent TV stations in small local markets across the country. As the FCC continues to relax ownership rules, Moon Shot figures, there’ll be lots of money to be made by selling these groups of stations to the biggest national chains. After the dust settles, the executive predicts, “a handful of companies will probably own all the TV stations across the country.” (Those following the various conspiratorial connections between the Bush administration and the Carlyle Group investment company will be interested to know that Carlyle is one of Moon Shot’s biggest funding partners.)
The FCC’s relaxation of both above-mentioned rules is a vital part of Media News Group’s future plans, nationwide and here in Mendocino County. My local MNG source told me a couple of summers ago that MNG’s goal was to own every non-union newspaper, every television station, and every commercial radio station on the North Coast. I said, “Well, isn’t there a little thing called the FCC standing in the way of that sort of monopoly?”
Well, no, my source said. CEO Singleton had told his management staff that year that he’d had lunch with both George W. Bush and Al Gore, and they each had assured him they were in favor of “freeing up the marketplace” by getting rid of the FCC rules.
Can this be stopped? It seems unlikely, since both big parties are happily on board. Unfortunately, the most public-interest-minded FCC commissioner, Gloria Tristani, resigned from the FCC this summer. Jeff Chester, director of the Center for Digital Democracy, says Congressman Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is the “closest thing” in Congress to a champion of the public interest value of diverse media ownership. California’s Congressional representatives have been absent from this fight, Chester said. “The problem with the Democrats in the California delegation,” Chester said (describing them as “liberal,” which some AVA readers might doubt), “is that they’re too deep into the pockets of Hollywood to challenge anything supported by big media. But they oughtta be held accountable.”
Deadline for formal public comment on the broadcast/newspaper rule was Dec. 3 (sorry, folks). But anyone committed to objecting to this rush to throw out these few-remaining obstacles to further media consolidation can submit a “reply comment” — your take on comments other “stakeholders” have made during the initial comment period — until January 7. Check out the the FCC home page at www.fcc.gov or go directly to the FCC comments uploading page at: http://gullfoss2.fcc.gov/cgi-bin/websql/prod/ecfs/upload_v2.hts.
The FCC is encouraging electronic filing these days — encouraging it so much, in fact, that I was unable to confirm the proper snail mail address for public comments. I got three different answers from the three different people I talked to, who seemed bemused by being asked — clearly the “public” isn’t usually very involved in public comment to the FCC. Before the anthrax scare, the mailing address for public comment was c/o the Commission’s Secretary, Magalie Roman Salas, Office of the Secretary, Federal Communications Commission, 445 Twelfth Street SW, TW-A325, Washington, DC 20554. This comment address is probably still safe. Commenters are asked to provide five copies, and to make sure the docket number of the regulatory review is included (MM Docket No. 01-262 for Cross-Ownership of Broadcast Stations and Newspapers; and MM Docket No. 01-329 for Multiple Ownership of Local Market Radio Stations).
There’s still plenty of time for the public to comment on the multiple radio station ownership rule. Comments are accepted until 60 days after the rulemaking notice has been published in the Federal Register. Apparently, the notice has not yet been published, although nobody I talked to at the FCC knew for sure….
The FCC says it’s looking for empirical data regarding local radio markets. Mendocino County residents are in a good position to provide that sort of empirical data on the importance of a variety of radio voices in a rural community lacking any local TV broadcast stations. The FCC is also particularly interested in public comments from three markets that “have all undergone substantial consolidation since 1996”: Syracuse, NY; Rockford, Ill.; and Florence, SC. Any AVA readers in those lovely cities, take note.
Another option for lodging a protest against media consolidation is to go to the Center for Digital Democracy’s website (www.democraticmedia.com), which offers its own “click-to-send” public comment opportunities, as well as good background on the issues.
One last note about our non-public-friendly FCC — an 11/15/01 press release announced the founding of an FCC “Homeland Security Policy Council.” This council, made up of FCC senior staff, has such vague “missions” as: “to assist the Commission in evaluating and strengthening measures for protecting U.S. communications services”; “to assist the Commission in ensuring rapid restoration of communications services and facilities that have been disrupted as the result of threats to, or actions against, our Nation’s homeland security”; and “to ensure that public safety, health and other emergency and defense personnel have effective communications available to them to assist the public as needed.”
It’s unclear how a group of policy makers and regulators in D.C. could help in such emergency situations — unless, perhaps, one takes the point of view that media consolidation is an ANSWER to “threats against our Nation’s homeland security,” instead of a threat in itself.
Despite the now-common and often-justified disparaging comments by many critics about “the mainstream media,” the news you’ll find in the nation’s leading newspapers is still much better than “The News” you see on the TV. I think it’s worth some effort to try and keep it that way.
* * * Here's the text of my comments to the FCC. * * *
TO: Federal Communications Commission
re: MM Docket No. 01-262
Cross-Ownership of Broadcast Stations and Newspapers
I oppose any attempt by FCC commissioners to weaken or eliminate the Newspaper/Broadcast cross-ownership rule.
There has been a marked difference in recent months between how newspapers and television broadcast news have covered the attacks on the World Trade Center and their aftermath. A greater diversity of viewpoints has been presented on newspaper editorial pages and web sites, than has been seen on the television news.
If newspapers were all owned by broadcast companies, is it likely this diversity would continue? If newspapers were all owned by broadcast companies, particularly in small, local news markets, is it likely that the newspaper editorial staffs would continue to be independent? Isn't it more likely that newspaper editorial staffs would be cut even further?
My own personal experience with the newspaper industry has confirmed my political belief that media consolidation is NOT in the public interest.
Here on the rural North Coast of Northern California, the local mainstream newspapers are now all owned by Media News Group. The list includes the Ukiah Daily Journal (the biggest paper in Mendocino County), the Lake County Record-Bee (the biggest paper in Lake County), the Eureka Times-Standard (the biggest paper in Humboldt County), the Willits News, the Fort Bragg Advocate News, and the Mendocino Beacon (after Media News Group bought the Mendocino and Fort Bragg papers nearly three years ago now, they shut down the Mendocino office entirely, and the Beacon is now put together entirely out of the Fort Bragg office — surely this is not in the public interest of the residents of the town of Mendocino.)
When I told the editor of the Ukiah Daily Journal a couple of years ago that I was quitting my reporter's job, because I couldn't make it on $8/hour, she told me I should consider my actions seriously, because it was Media News Group's plan to own every media outlet on the North Coast — every newspaper, every radio station and every television station. “You have to consider your future,” she said. At the time, I replied: “Well, isn't there a little thing called the FCC standing in the way of such monopoly?” And she told me MNG executive Dean Singleton had told his management staff that both Vice-President Gore and Gov. George W. Bush had assured Singleton personally that removing ownership caps and cross-media rules were on both of their agendas.
When I moved to Willits in 1992, the Willits News was still owned by a local family, and the county reporter on staff was making $14.75/hour — a rather good wage here, thanks to her eight years at the paper. When I worked as county reporter and interim editor at the Willits News after it was sold to Times Publishing, a small chain out of Pennsylvania, I made $8/hour, raised to $8.25 right before I left.
I then interviewed for a job at the Ukiah Daily Journal, then owned by Donrey Publishing, and I was shocked to discover they were offering reporters only $7.50/hour. I took the job anyway, and enjoyed a successful stint at the paper, until I'd gotten so deeply in debt, using my credit cards to cover expenses, like automobile maintenance, that my wages didn't cover, that I had to quit.
Current employees of the Ukiah Daily Journal complain privately about how, under Media News Group, “everything is bottom line.” Morale is low, and medical and other benefits offered under Media News Group ownership are said to be worse than ever.
Low wages and paltry benefits paid to newspaper staffs by national chains have affected editorial coverage enormously at the local papers. Local reporters are now much more likely to be young people from away — young people with very little reporting experience and no knowledge of local history, issues, or personalities. These young people don't stay long — they have no stake in our communities, and leave as soon as possible for better jobs somewhere else.
One controversial situation in Willits involves a shut-down chrome-plating factory, which has resulted in a toxic plume of groundwater under the site. Neighbors involved in a lawsuit against the City of Willits and the plant's current owners have “muddied the waters” by making unsupported claims regarding the activities at the plant, but there is no question that there was at least some illegal dumping. The City of Willits knows this; the state Water Board knows this; the federal EPA knows this; and former employees at the plant have testified in detail about illegal dumping. So, I was shocked to hear the current local reporter for the Willits News, who moved to town last year from Washington State, say she didn't know if there had been intentional illegal dumping. I asked the City of Willits attorney to provide this reporter with a copy of the deposition of the court case with the testimony of the ex-employees, and I can only hope the reporter read it.
When I was covering this toxic situation for the Ukiah daily, one issue was a clean-up scheme proposed by a “bio-remediator” from Texas, who wanted to pump molasses and lime sulfur into wells to convert the hazardous chrome to a less hazardous form. I called the local newspaper in another California town where this bio-remediation company had done a clean-up a few years ago to check on its long-term success. Unfortunately, when the local reporter at this paper called back, he said there was nobody working at the paper anymore who'd been there when this clean-up was done, so they couldn't tell me anything about the situation.
Two summers ago, a high-school junior put together the sports pages during school vacation for the Ukiah Daily Journal, because they couldn't find a sports reporter willing to take the job for such low wages. This same high-school junior (15?, 16? years old), covered the editor's position at the Willits News for two weeks that same summer, and ended up putting out a front page with two inappropriate stories that offended local readers — one should've been on the editorial page, and one probably shouldn't have been printed at all. But this high-school junior, with no journalism experience or training didn't know any better — all he knew was how to work the page layout program.
The Willits News went without a county reporter for eight months this last year, again because they couldn't hire anybody for the low wages they offered. An occasional re-printed Ukiah Daily Journal story was the only coverage of county issues presented in the Willits News that whole time. If the Willits News was still separately owned, if they were still “competing” with the Ukiah paper and didn't have the option of reprinting the UDJ stories, would they have made more an effort to attract a reporter (maybe raised the wages a bit)? I can't say, but this seems to me a good example of how consolidation of media ownership specifically results in fewer editorial voices.
One other issue I'd like to point out: after Media News Group bought the Ukiah paper, they shut down the Ukiah pressroom and shifted all newspaper and side job printing to the Lake County plant. Not only did this result in loss of jobs (and loss of the only web printing press in Ukiah), it also mandated earlier editorial and production deadlines. The Ukiah Daily Journal has always been an “afternoon paper,” but although you still can't find it in the racks first thing in the morning, the fact is, the newspaper is now put to bed the evening before publication, instead of early the same morning. Needless to say, this has affected the freshness and timeliness of the editorial product.
The twice-a-week Willits News is also now electronically transmitted and printed in Lake County. Again, this has meant earlier deadlines for editorial staff, and much less control of the look of the paper — the editor no longer has the chance to take a look at the pages as they come off the press. One specific result: for the first time anyone can remember, the Wednesday issue after this November's Tuesday election had no mention of the local election results. The traditional Willits News practice of holding a spot on the front-page for the late-night election results was abandoned.
These issues may not seem very momentous in the grand scheme of things, but for local communities dependent on their local newspaper for news about what the Board of Supervisors or the school board or the planning commission is doing — they are very important, indeed. There are, as yet, no Internet sites on the North Coast with local news other than the web sites maintained by the above-mentioned chain-owned newspapers. Radio news is fleeting, and is not available as an archive for the general public, as old newspapers are. There are several local radio stations with reporters who cover, at least briefly, the local decision-making bodies, but as the FCC is considering allowing multiple ownership of radio stations inside the same market, diversity of these voices is threatened, also.
Consolidation means fewer editorial voices, and loss of pay and benefits for editorial workers. It also means local reporters are less likely to develop much understanding of important local issues. This does not serve the public interest, as is clearly demonstrated here on the North Coast of California.
Thanks for this opportunity to comment.