There they go again. No, not the FCC. This time it’s the U.S. Senate, still worried after all these years that the same company might own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market. The Senate recently passed Senate Joint Resolution 28, which cancels a very modest attempt by the FCC to relax the newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule in the nation’s top 20 media markets.
In effect, the Senate is saying that ownership of newspapers and TV stations should be restricted just as it was in 1975 when the rule was adopted – when viewers in big cities were lucky to get six over-the-air channels, and “cable” was still the “community antenna” in rural areas.
The effort to relax or even eliminate the cross ownership ban has gone on for years, even as the FCC was repealing virtually all of its other ’70s-era ownership restrictions. The FCC’s action on Dec. 18 wasn’t much, but it was still too much for a Senate that’s apparently afraid to move out of the 1970s.
John F. Sturm, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, summed it up when he said: “It is incomprehensible that Congress would shackle local newspapers – and only newspapers – with a ban that fits the eight-track era, but not the iPod world we live in.”
There is no logical reason for the Senate to act this way. Could the reason be political? Congress and the FCC are routinely barraged with mass e-mails orchestrated by various interest groups. The magnitude of these mailings can appear far greater to policymakers than it really is. Think of the man behind the curtain in "The Wizard of Oz."
A popular policy target of such groups has been “media consolidation,” always portrayed as a looming evil. But in today’s economic environment, multiple ownership of media outlets has become an economic necessity – a matter of survival.
Critics fear that “consolidation” will result in fewer voices and viewpoints reaching the public. The real danger, however, is that media voices will be lost as struggling newspapers and broadcast outlets are forced out of business, suffocated by antiquated rules that prevent them from taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with multiple ownership.
It will be ironic indeed if the anti-consolidation forces triumph, leaving us with less rather than more media diversity. The politically timid Senate is playing right into the critics’ hands. It’s time for our solons to pitch their eight-tracks and reach for an iPod.