Media Ownership and the Quality of News: As the Federal Communications Commission Considers Changing Rules, Journalists Need to Pay Better Attention. (Curator's Corner)

Article excerpt

The American press has a tendency to underreport its own story. Right now this means that as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposes to change the rules governing ownership of local television stations, the public is being left largely in the dark. Normally, the press would love to report this story about powerful conglomerates and a concentration of markets and questions about how well the public will be served. But many of the players in this story are big media companies, whose newspapers and broadcast outlets seem to be shying away from their obligation to help readers and viewers anticipate what the changes might mean for them.

A decision by the FCC is expected this year. If the proposed changes are approved, a single corporation could own newspapers, radio and TV stations in one community. It is possible, too, that a single company could control access to more than 35 percent of all TV households in the nation.

The current rules were established in an era when local citizens had fewer choices: typically, three TV stations and a couple of newspapers. There were many independent owners and few giant media corporations. The FCC argues that it wants to modernize its rules to accommodate new technologies such as the Internet and satellite transmission of sound and video images.

Those who support the rule changes argue that worries about monopoly control are unfounded. In its filing to the FCC, Gannett documents the experience of KNPX-TV and The Arizona Republic in Phoenix in which resources are shared on major breaking stories, though the news staffs usually operate competitively. Gannett argues that the community is better served on big stories by this collaboration.

Critics fear the changes are being pushed along too fast, without sufficient input from the public and without in-depth reporting in the press. They fear there will be less diversity of programming in local markets, based on the experience of radio after the FCC liberalized group ownership rules in 1996. Before then, independent ownership was the standard. The largest group controlled fewer than 65 radio stations: Now Clear Channel Communications dominates radio station ownership with 1,225 stations. Moreover, the number of station owners has dropped by one-third. And, when a huge corporation takes over a local station, there tends to be less interest in local news coverage.

Such sweeping changes in how the public's airwaves are used require a national debate. Newspaper editorials and broadcast commentators should urge FCC Chairman Michael Powell to schedule a series of discussions. …