With FCC chief Tom Wheeler proposing to continue the decades-old ban on TV-newspaper common ownership, one has to ask in the light of modern media makeup, Why? Does he want to drive the final nail in the print media’s coffin? Ban supporters say its removal would lead to less news in local markets.That's 1975 thinking and, even if it were true then, it's not true now.
Crossownership Ban Doesn’t Reflect Reality
Do I have to go through the litany of horrors that has been newspaper publishing over the past decade — the closings, the plunging circulation, the plummeting revenue, the shuttered bureaus, the discarded reporters and editors?
You wouldn’t think so. Yet, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler seems to be oblivious to it all. Last week, he proposed to the full commission that they retain the ban against owning newspapers and TV stations in the same market. With the other two Democrat commissioners in lock step, the FCC is expected to adopt the recommendation.
Wheeler did this, even though newspapers are desperate for the kind of help that a merger with the local TV station might bring. The 41-year-old newspaper-broadcast crossownership rule now seems purposefully designed to accelerate the demise of newspapers.
I suppose it isn’t the FCC’s job to care about newspapers. There’s nothing in the Communications Act that says that it must, but it should. Even in their diminished state, daily newspapers that are subject to the rule provide important local news to hundreds of communities.
Within bounds, policymakers should do what they can to sustain the business until it can complete its painful and wrenching transition to digital. And permitting crossownership just might give newspapers the boost they need.
Broadcasting is the FCC’s job, by the way. And permitting crossownership might also help invigorate TV stations, whose long-term future is by no means a sure thing.
The FCC Democrats are not acting in a vacuum. The crossownership ban is one of the keystones of liberal media policy, even though it was adopted in 1975 during the Ford Administration on the FCC watch of Republican Dick Wiley.
A vast left-wing conspiracy — OK, sorry, let’s call it a vast left-wing coalition — has fought doggedly for the ban at the FCC, on Capitol Hill and in the courts over the years. Any conservative support for the ban evaporated long ago.
The liberals oppose not only lifting the ban, but also half measures like a presumptive waiver. Combinations would be presumed to be OK if, say, they involved stations not ranked among the top four and markets with at least eight independently owned stations. Of course, the FCC would still have the right to nix the deal if a majority of the commissioners still felt queasy about it.
Just last week, representatives of the United Church of Christ, Free Press, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Common Cause, the Institute for Public Representation of the Georgetown Law Center and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights pressed their case for preserving the ban at the FCC.
Their prime argument is that newspaper-station combos would lessen the amount of news produced in a market by “crowding out” other news-producing stations.
The crowding-out theory is bizarre. It’s based on the notion that TV newsrooms follow the lead of the local newspapers in covering stories and that if one station among them is in bed with the newspaper, the others will be at a disadvantage.
I’ll let Free Press — or Regulated Press as I like to call it — take it from here: “Cross-owned TVs are able to leverage their exclusive access to the local newspaper to shut out competitors from stories they would otherwise report.
“Consequently, those stations pare down their news operations, which leads to an overall decline in the amount of local news produced in the market and in the number of independent producers of local news.”
Such an argument is so far removed from the actual workings of local journalism — TV, newspaper and digital — that it is ludicrous.
Cross-owned TV stations may have an advantage, but it is not a critical one. If it were, there would be a lot of defunct TV news operations in markets where there were (or are) grandfathered newspaper-broadcast combos.
I challenge Regulated Press or any of its ilk to put together a panel of working local news people to endorse this theory.
Not only is the theory stunningly stupid, it is hopelessly out of date.
If you look at a recent filing from the save-the-ban groups, you will find that they cite as evidence a 2012 filing, and, if you go back and look at that filing, you see it cites research submitted in 2007.
So, the whole justification for the rule is based on research that is nine years old. That’s forever when you are talking about the media. Social media was in its infancy in 2007. Who would have guessed then that Facebook would become a force in news?
Another more germane example to the extraordinary changes that have swept over the media ecosystem in recent years: multimedia companies have been dumping their newspapers — first, Belo, then Media General, The Washington Post, Tribune, Scripps, Gannett, Dispatch and Schurz.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended a Scripps investors’ conference where the company ballyhooed its diversification into national digital media and podcasting.
If it had announced its intention to buy newspapers again, the analysts and investors would have raced from the room to dump the stock and CEO Rich Boehne would now be working on his severance package.
Wall Street last year rejected Media General’s merger with Meredith in large part because Meredith is weighed down by paper. The financial community is not making fine distinctions between newspapers and magazines these days.
One of the great ironies — no, one of the great absurdities — of this debate is that there is little evidence that newspapers and TV station even want to get together.
As I look at our top 20 station groups, I see that only three are parts of companies that still own newspapers — Hearst Television, Cox Media and Cordillera Communications.
And of those three, only Cox seems interested in combining newspaper and broadcast newsrooms as it has done in Dayton, Ohio. From my scan of the FCC docket, Cox is also the only individual media company that is still bothering to fight the ban.
The other half of the argument for the ban is that it would preserve stations that might be bought by small businesses, particularly minority- or female-owned ones.
But this commission doesn’t give a damn about ownership diversity in TV broadcasting. If it did, it would not be conducting a program — the incentive auction — that will likely eliminate hundreds of stations that might otherwise have been sold to newcomers.
No, the FCC has determined, it is best to buy excess stations at prices far exceeding their value as broadcasting businesses and then turn around and sell them at the inflated cost to the wireless oligopoly.
If the liberals really believed in broadcast ownership diversity they would forget about the crossownership rule and shut down the incentive auction.
It would almost make more sense for Wheeler to cite environmental grounds for keeping the rule. The sooner newspapers are forced out of the business, the argument would go, the quicker landfills will be relieved of avalanches of newsprint.
The NAB is still fighting the ban. It should. As I said, it is a keystone of media ownership regulation. If it goes, other restrictions that are hobbling broadcasting may, with some additional pressure, crumble.
There’s no accounting for what some people believe.
On Wednesday, on the CBS Evening News, I saw an earnest young woman who was visiting the impressive 510-foot Noah’s ark that just opened in Kentucky. She told the reporter she believed in the literal truth of the Bible and it was clear from the look in her eye that nobody was going to talk her out it.
In her mind, the earth is 6,000 years old and people once played with baby dinosaurs.
The crossownership rule is liberal orthodoxy. Its acolytes believe that only the rule stands in the way of one company dominating public discourse and news in a market.
In their minds, it seems, it’s always 1975 and cable, satellite and the internet never happened.