Should the corporate owners of newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the New York Post be allowed to own television stations in the same city? Until recently, such cross-ownership has been banned by the Federal Communications Commission as inimical to the vitality of a free press. Now, the FCC, headed by a Bush appointee, is about to reverse a 1974 rule aimed at preventing a few companies from dominating the media. The people who run the huge communications conglomerates were very aware that the issue of media concentration was hanging in the balance in the last presidential election.
The Bush camp had signaled that it intended to end such regulations, while Al Gore supported the Clinton administration's policy of retaining rules aimed at preventing monopoly control of any one market. But as important as this issue was to CEOs and the lobbyists who represent them, it was scarcely covered in election news reports. Most often, media mergers are examined for their impact on corporate profits and stock values; rarely are they considered as a possible threat to free access to diverse points of view -- a requirement for a representative democracy.
For Rupert Murdoch, the line between profit and reporting seems more obscure than at traditional news organizations. The Bush victory, which Murdoch and his company strongly backed, makes his latest merger a done deal. On Election Night, Murdoch's news outlets, directed by Roger Ailes, a former top Republican operative, could barely contain their joy over Bush's victory. Fox was the first to proclaim the victory, based on private polling data supplied by a member of the Bush family who was a consultant to the network. The FCC, now headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell's son, Michael, is expected to certify this week that Murdoch's News Corp. can keep the two New York television stations it acquired in a recent merger, along with the New York Post.
Bush's victory may also prove a profit boon for the Tribune Co., which last year merged with the Times Mirror Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times. Tribune wants to keep ownership of both its television stations and its newspapers in New York, Los Angeles and Hartford, Conn. The New York Times reported during the election that Shaun Sheehan, Tribune's Washington lobbyist, expected a rule change favorable to his company if Bush was elected. And last week, he still sounded optimistic when quoted in the Los Angeles Times: "My job is to hold everybody's feet to the fire and get this rule-making going. I think we are going to see some movement here."
Presumably the lobbyist does not intend to also hold Tribune newspaper reporters' feet to the fire. But there is always a potential conflict of interest when journalists cover events of such major concern to the owners of their parent company. It is absurd to think that journalists operate in a corporate vacuum, unaware of the larger interests and concerns of their owners, and that they are guided solely by their knowledge of the facts.
While this is the "objective" news model inculcated by journalism professors, as long as the drive for profits leads to bonuses and higher pay rates (and not layoffs), it is natural that journalists welcome an improved profit picture for the owners of their team. The problem is that what's good for the bottom line, and journalists' bank accounts, may not be good for society.
Let's not kid around: There is fear in newsrooms when it comes to challenging the interests of the media moguls who can, with nothing more than an offhand remark to a subordinate, stall or end an editor's or reporter's career at an enterprise. The alternative is to leave and pursue the truth at other news organizations, but that becomes more difficult when they are concentrated in fewer hands. This is a time of testing for journalists. The deregulation mania of the FCC is being challenged by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, who is proposing an 18-month moratorium on any changes in the FCC's cross-ownership rule because of the "erosion of diversity in our local markets."
These are matters worthy of serious public debate, but that will only occur if the issue is fully covered in the media. As the L.A. Times reported last week, "The views of the big media companies have held sway for most of this year." Perhaps that is because the media has failed to inform the public of the vital public issues at stake, deferring instead to the corporate preoccupation with maximizing profit.