NYT’s on Media Cross-Ownership: Too Much Frenzy and Not Enough Reporting and Reflection

Today’s business section column [reg. required] on why concerns over newspaper-broadcast ownership safeguards are “yesterday’s news,” illustrates how poorly informed too many media beat reporters are about their own industry. First, writer Richard Siklos fails to acknowledge that his own employer—The Times Co.—lobbied the FCC to sweep away such rules during the 2001-3 proceeding. Reporters need to do a better of digging to learn about what their own employers are doing—both politically and in terms of market investments. In addition, Siklos, like so many others, fails to address how the Internet, due to recent FCC decisions, may not be able to provide a meaningfully diverse array of information sources in the near future. The elimination of network neutrality for U.S. broadband permits a very few—including cable, telephone, and broadcast TV stations—to send their content on so-called “fast lanes” [and for the 98% of the public, captive customers at that]. Siklos argues that “… the most important reason that cross-ownership rules no longer make sense is this: the distinctions between print and television are starting to blur in a digital world. Video on the Web is the biggest thing since turkey and gravy.” But today’s wide-open broadband frontier is likely to be tamed by the growing power of the Internet monopolies, now freed from operating their networks under a non-discrimination requirement [broadcast TV stations are already using their legislatively-procured “retransmission consent” to obtain favorable digital transport and promotion. Such market power is enhanced by the Congressional digital TV spectrum giveaway—which the Times Co. stations also received. Digital “retrans consent” has made owning a station a strategic investment during this transition period in the broadband market. Such a selling point is no doubt part of what the Times Co. is now making as it sells its stations.]

Siklos also fails to meaningfully assess how the business models of so many publicly traded newspapers have helped bring the industry to its current crisis point. Tribune tried to squeeze every dime out of its operations—hurting journalism as a result. Mr. Siklos should be interviewing colleagues who work at the LA Times and other Trib papers. Or get embedded in a paper run by Dean Singleton. We also wish Mr. Siklos had spent more time thinking about the unique journalistic culture of a newspaper—and why maintaining its editorial independence from TV/show-biz focused businesses is important to protect.

Diversity of media ownership is an serious topic—not one to be treated so flippantly as Mr. Siklos does for his largely business readers. It’s about the First Amendment in the digital era; open broadband networks; local and national news operations with the resources and commitment to do a serious job covering private and public power; and ownership by people now largely left out—namely everybody else other than white men. Cross-ownership is an important part of the “check and balances” the U.S. has relied on to ensure the electronic media can serve the public interest. Granted, things are changing—but much is not in the short term. This is a story that Mr. Siklos should return to soon—but do more careful reporting. Whether we have a media system capable of doing the investigative reporting necessary so it can stand up to a future Administration wanting to go to war without real documentation is part of what’s at stake.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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