COMMENTARY BY LEE SPIECKERMAN

Counterpoint: The Seattle Times Got It Wrong

The Seattle Times and its publisher, Frank Blethen, have long styled themselves as crusaders for independent journalism and freedom of the press. So, it’s both discordant and disappointing that a recent editorial in The Times called for heavy-handed federal government intervention to limit media companies’ ability to acquire and run more TV stations.

The Seattle Times and its publisher, Frank Blethen, have long styled themselves as crusaders for independent journalism and freedom of the press. So, it’s both discordant and disappointing that a recent editorial in The Times called for heavy-handed federal government intervention to limit media companies’ ability to acquire and run more TV stations.

Television broadcasters in Seattle and across the country are operating in the most brutal business environment in their history — besieged by a plethora of online and mobile video offerings, with more entrants sprouting up every day.

Unlike most of those competing services, Seattle’s broadcast TV stations provide high quality local news and weather coverage — and it’s totally free to anyone with an antenna. Even viewers who get their local TV stations from cable and satellite pay far less for it proportionally than they do for much less-watched national cable networks like USA and ESPN.

To keep their businesses viable in this arduous new media age, TV station owners need to amortize costs across more outlets and build scale to increase negotiating clout with programming suppliers and cable and satellite carriers. But localism will continue to be what sets broadcast television stations apart and will always be crucial to their financial success. The federal government intervention in local broadcasting ownership endorsed by Blethen would seriously impair the industry and reduce the number of broadcasters able to make the substantial investment required to produce local television news.

But Blethen’s stance is not only irresponsible for someone who claims to celebrate robust local journalism, it’s appallingly disingenuous and self-serving.

For years, while loudly proclaiming that government regulations are necessary to maintain diversity in local media markets, Blethen did everything in his power to crush his only newspaper competitor, the Post-Intelligencer, by terminating the two papers’ joint operating agreement (JOA). Though the two companies eventually reached a settlement in 2007 that enabled the PI to continue for an unspecified period, the Great Recession of 2009 finally forced PI owner Hearst to pull the plug. Few would question that the prospect of future JOA battles with Blethen weighed heavily in Hearst’s heartbreaking decision.

BRAND CONNECTIONS

Ironically, if government rules prohibiting newspapers from buying television stations in the same city — rules long extolled by Blethen — hadn’t existed, Hearst’s successful television division might have purchased KOMO or another Seattle TV station. That could have given Hearst enough critical mass in the market to make the PI viable, with or without the JOA.

But, apparently, achieving his dream of making Seattle a one newspaper town isn’t enough for Mr. Blethen. Now he wants the government to create regulatory roadblocks for financially strong broadcasting companies that want to own Seattle television stations — the only major competitors The Times has left. This might be because Blethen needs all the help he can get — within the newspaper industry, Blethen’s mismanagement is legendary.

The Times’ editorial’s swipe at one of the Seattle TV stations for layoffs is particularly galling. Blethen’s newspaper has laid off nearly 200 workers over the past three years. The cessation of publication by the PI which he helped bring about resulted in almost 150 jobs lost. Together, that’s more than all of the people currently employed by Seattle’s broadcast TV news operations. If Blethen has his way, and Washington steps in to limit the ability of highly regarded media companies to enter the market, Seattle should brace itself for a lot of television news staff layoffs in the future.

Blethen also seems to believe that his business problems trump our Constitution. “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….” There are no more clearly enunciated words in our Bill of Rights. We have a plethora of antitrust laws ably enforced by the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. They should be equally applied to all industries.

The special, more onerous set of regulations in place for television stations subjects them to pernicious pressure from the very politicians and government officials they are supposed to cover fearlessly. The constant danger of regulatory reprisal causes TV news stations to tread carefully when they do stories about officeholders or political movers and shakers; for the most part, broadcast television stations decline to editorialize. Newspapers and cable news networks aren’t subject to those rules and can expose the truth and offer unvarnished opinion.

This second-class status for local television stations championed by The Times is inherently contrary to the First Amendment, would be anathema to our Founding Fathers and should be repugnant to any principled news organization.

Let’s hope that Seattle citizens and Washington, D.C., leaders see The Times editorial for what it is — nothing more than floundering publisher Blethen’s blarney.

Lee Spieckerman is CEO of SpieckermanMedia LLC, a Dallas-based strategic communications consultancy and cable television network company. You can contact him at l[email protected].


Comments (6)

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Gregg Palermo says:

December 10, 2013 at 8:36 am

The justification for branding the airwaves as “public” is the scarcity argument. But it seems daily newspapers are truly scarce in Seattle, not stations.

Angie McClimon says:

December 10, 2013 at 10:36 am

What the Times is trying to make known to the general public (who care less about who owns stations) is that when few companies own more of the public airwaves, they become less public and more under the whims of corporate bean counters, frequently resulting in less objective and formulaic news that isn’t unbaised (Sinclair).

    Wagner Pereira says:

    December 10, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    What the Seattle Times did NOT disclose is the do as I say, not as I do approach. The Seattle Times forced the Post-Intelligencer (the morning newspaper in Seattle while the Seattle Times was the afternoon paper until 2000) out of business with lawsuits concerning the Seattle Times JOA, thus ensuring Seattle would become a 1 Newspaper Market. Furthermore, they fail to openly disclose even though they call themselves “private”, 49.5% of the common voting stock of the Seattle Times Company is held by McClatchy.

Ellen Samrock says:

December 10, 2013 at 12:28 pm

The Seattle Times piece assumes too much There’s no guarantee that if KOMO was under ownership as a single station that staff would not be laid off. Nor is there any guarantee that KOMO wouldn’t ultimately be sacrificed in the incentive auction and taken off the air. So much for diversity of opinion, free speech, etc. At least with Sinclair, we know they’re in the broadcast game for keeps. But as has often been observed, to stay in the game you need the economy of scale that only a large broadcast group or media conglomerate can provide. I’m sure the Wheeler FCC understands this. At worst, perhaps they can impose some Comcast-like conditions on the sale but I doubt they will.

Brian Bussey says:

December 10, 2013 at 12:50 pm

This lobbyist eloquently distorts facts. No local TV station EP is afraid of any politician, at any level, under any circumstances. That same EP is totally afraid of his local tier 2 dealer group if he finds out their brand of SUV’s is killing school kids and wants to report about it. The FCC tracks activities. The heavy handed delusion only exists in the minds of merger specialists because they are not tasked with creating good paying American jobs. They measure success in how many employees can be cut and triumphantly call that increase productivity when in fact, every service is now slower than it was before the layoffs. There is no benefit to the American people of have 5 or 6 gigantic station groups. I would like someone to provide me examples of where a community benefited from losing local ownership of their TV stations.

    Wagner Pereira says:

    December 10, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    If one considers a TV station on the air a benefit vs not on the air, there are examples where buying out local ownership saved a station from going dark. Furthermore, larger companies bring resources a local owner cannot ever imagine having.


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