Jewish World Review June 4, 2003/ 4 Sivan, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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You want the news? Write it yourself | When you've got the juice to blow away the opposition, you don't have to pose as poet or priest.

Michael Powell, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, had the votes yesterday to deliver a gift to the moguls of what we used to call "newspapers and radio and television stations," and what we now call "the media."

The distinction is important. Newspapers were once run by newspapermen, and now many of them — the big ones, anyway — are run by lawyers and accountants, who regard news, and the dollars and cents required to report it, merely as an irritant to the bottom line.

Mr. Powell and his two Republican colleagues on the FCC voted to allow a newspaper to own a television station in its market — i.e., the same city — and to allow broadcast networks to buy more and more stations at local and national levels until eventually Walt Disney and Rupert Murdoch and the like will own them all. They promise that we're going to love it.

A barely persuasive case has been made that this is sad but unavoidable, since it comports with the free market. Why should the government have anything to say about it? If this is true, however, logically all limits should be eliminated (and that may be what's really afoot). But persuasive is not necessarily convincing, and Mr. Powell seems not to have convinced even himself (or at least not all of his fibers).

"I have had to make peace with myself," he said on the eve of the vote, "to know myself, to know with every fiber of my being and intellect and faith with the law that this is the right answer, at least in the short term. Though it's not the popular answer."

Indeed, it seems not to be. The FCC's voice mail and e-mail server were shut down by the outpouring of public comment, most of it angry and resentful that the corporate state was about to swallow more of the airwaves. The moguls of the big media managed to get through, of course, since the likes of Gannett, Knight-Ridder, the Chicago Tribune Co. and the other companies that have leveled once good newspapers do not have to use voice mail or e-mail to get their message across. They have lawyers and lobbyists to do that for them.

"If I did exactly what I am being urged to do, the result would be disastrous," says Mr. Powell. He worries that if the FCC had not loosened the rules on concentration of radio and television stations, the courts would strike down all regulations and the result would be "unpoliced" and "unfettered" consolidation.

Mr. Powell says he believes that consolidation augurs well for the coverage of local news because the big companies can bring their greater resources and "sophistication" to newsgathering. Of course they will. Mr. Powell seems to have missed his daddy's lecture on where babies come from.

A good argument can be made that nothing can make the coverage of local television news worse than it is, with its unrelenting diet of car crashes and shootings and adolescent jokery about the weather, all of which costs almost nothing to produce. But we have seen what has been done to once-good newspapers by companies that now want to gobble up more radio and television stations.

The first responsibility of any newspaper or TV station, like any business enterprise, is to return a profit to its owners, of course; nearly everyone understands that much of the free market. Newspapers were once owned by families that had to face their subscribers every day, held to be a public trust like the gas company or the waterworks. Newspapers were important in the lives of their readers, the tangible expression of a community, and everybody in town read the paper.

A generation ago, every newspaper had its own personality. Some were quirky, some were staid and even stuffy. Others were lively, sometimes dignified and sometimes flamboyant. But they were always real. The owning families, often riddled by brutal sibling rivalry, sold out to the absentee chains (usually Gannett) and now newspapers rarely reflect the communities where they are printed. Big is not always beautiful.

Newspaper readership, along with newspaper quality, has declined with the consolidation of ownership. Despite the color photographs and jazzy graphics, you might not know from reading the morning paper whether you're in Albany or Nashville, Orlando or Denver, or either of the Portlands. Some newspaper companies specialize in buying newspapers merely to shut them down.

Freedom of the press, the press critic A.J. Liebling observed, belongs to the man who owns one. Michael Powell appears to subscribe to this view. He doesn't worry about concentration of the media because now there's cable TV, the Internet and "paid television programming." If you want an alternate view of what's going on in the world, write it yourself and post it on the Internet. Or tune in to an infomercial for the latest news of a pressure cooker, a turkey roaster or how to organize a real-estate scam. It's all there for you.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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