By Tracie Powell
The Federal Communications Commission has delayed until January it’s decision on whether to further relax a long-standing rule that limits the ability of companies to own both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same local market. Supporters of the rule argue that it is outdated, while opponents say it will further weaken media ownership by blacks, Hispanics and those representing other ethnic groups.
Truth is, the rule change is a double-edged sword, which is exactly why journalism associations such as the National Association of Black Journalists, shouldn’t just sit on the sideline as impartial observers while others shape policy; they need to weigh in.
The F.C.C. already allows companies to seek waivers to own both a newspaper and a station in the same market. The New York Times reported earlier this month that the News Corporation owns The New York Post and two television stations in the New York City market. “Allowing more companies to do so could create new bidders for newspapers, which as a whole have suffered more severely than local TV stations in the last decade,” Brian Stelter wrote for the Times.
He’s right. Loosening rules could create new opportunities, and new life, for struggling news organizations. At the same time, changing the rules could also lead to consolidation, which might lead to more job layoffs for journalists.
“In the vast majority of cases, I do not believe that newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership advances the public interest,” former Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, said in a statement. “It means fewer voices in the community, less localism in the industry and steep transactional costs that all too often lead to down-sized or shuttered newsrooms and fired journalists.”
He’s right too. Mergers may mean opportunity but can also mean cuts, something all too familiar in the nation’s newsrooms; and people of color are all too often the first laid off when mergers happen.
While that sinks in, journalists should also consider how consolidation impacts who controls the images and information our communities receive.
Whites far outpace African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups when it comes to owning and controlling the medium and the message, according to an F.C.C. report released in November.
- While whites, collectively or individually, controlled the majority of 9,610 broadcast stations in 2011;
- American Indian/Alaska Natives owned or controlled 64;
- Asians owned or controlled 187 broadcast stations;
- Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islanders owned or controlled 31 broadcast stations;
- Persons of two or more races owned or controlled 46 broadcast stations.
Black/African Americans owned 231 broadcast stations, but owned majority shares in just 10 (0.7 percent) full power commercial television stations, down from 12 (1 percent) owned in 2009, the National Newspaper Publishers Association reported this week. Hispanics, on the other hand, increased the number of full power television stations they owned from 30 (2.5 percent) in 2009 to 39 in 2011 (2.9 percent). The number of White owned full power TV stations increased from 754 (63.4 percent) to 935 (69.4 percent) over the same period.
In September, NABJ released a report pointing to the continued lack of diversity in television newsrooms and calling attention to the congressional mandate for the F.C.C. to eliminate market barriers to entrepreneurs and other small businesses in the provision and ownership of telecommunications and information services. But so far the organization has been silent on whether it supports the current proposed F.C.C. rule change.
Despite the fact that Hispanics have seen an increase in media ownership, in a letter dated December 12, 2012, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists told F.C.C. Chairman Nicholas Genachowski that the organization was troubled by the commission’s plans to lift the newspaper-TV cross-ownership ban in the country’s largest markets. NAHJ also stated that it was frustrated that the F.C.C. has failed to listen to advocates who, for years, have called on the commission “to adopt policies to increase ownership diversity rather than promoting greater media consolidation, which has made it harder for women and people of color to own broadcast stations.”
Supporters of the rule change point to how it has become easier for women and people of color to control and own the medium and the message. They argue the Internet has lowered and eliminated so-called barriers to the marketplace. “The notion that broadcasters may distribute their content through radio, television, the Internet, mobile devices and other unforeseen portals, but must be prohibited by law from printing the same content on the medium of newsprint, seems anachronistic at best,” Republican Commissioner Robert M. McDowell said in a statement. He “suggested that the rule is outdated at a time when people increasingly get news on the unregulated Internet,” reports the Times.
The “unregulated Internet” raises a final, yet little discussed point present in this F.C.C fight: Not everybody is online regularly nor do they have full access to increasingly pay-walled news websites. In fact, only 43 percent of Americans who make less than $25,000 a year have home Internet access, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce study. It’s clear that in moving toward digital news, many people still need access to information that doesn’t require a computer.
This is perhaps the most compelling reason why NABJ, and other journalism associations that have yet to speak out on this issue but care about an informed citizenry, should stand in opposition to the F.C.C’s rule change.
Tracie Powell lives in Washington, D.C. and writes about legal and policy issues confronting the changing media landscape. She is a Vice Chair of the NABJ Digital Journalism Task Force. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org