FCC ruling may create new #039;Big Brother#039;

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Longtime watchers of the Federal Communications Commission have seen it waver back and forth on a variety of issues.

The latest issue that's getting a lot of press these days is over the Commission's vote to relax ownership rules.

Basically, the 3-2 vote will allow some news companies to own both newspaper and radio and television stations in the same market.

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What that does is open the door to single-source news and it lessens the collective ability of the media to fulfill its watchdog role for the public.

The Commission said in its decision Monday that a single company could own TV stations that reach 45 percent of American households, rather than 35 percent, and it ended the ban on cross-ownership of broadcast and newspaper outlets in large markets. It did leave some restrictions on the smaller markets. One company cannot own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market if there are fewer than three TV stations.

While that will help protect smaller markets, that doesn't help out the nation's large cities where, after all, most of the nation gets their news.

The four major networks - Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS - still can't merge under the rule, but they can expand their reach and integrate their news operations. The end result is that viewers and readers will get the same news.

That's unhealthy for the country.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell and his two fellow Republicans on the commission got their deregulation package through this time. For a long while, Powell has been the minority voice of reason. On this issue, however, he's wrong.

Deregulating media ownership is a sticky proposition. Even the old-timers who first served on the Commission in the '40s could see that it was not in the public's interest for the airwaves and the printing press to be owned by the same company.

Powell said the change was long overdue because the old rules were outdated for this day and age.

Certainly there are some things that are outdated, but what about the corrupt county official with his hand in the road fund? If he's a buddy to the guy who owns all the news outlets, or at least the major news outlets, isn't that a little like the fox guarding the hen house?

I think it is.

Will Rogers said &uot;All I know is what I read in the newspaper.&uot; Many of us are like that. We allow news organizations to report to us what they believe is news. We make those decisions every day around our newsroom.

The beauty of it is that in the newsroom across town, whether it's a radio, television, newspaper or cable newsroom, someone else is making a similar decision. Among everyone, all the news gets covered and the public is better served.

Opening the airwaves and the presses up to the same people could dramatically rip apart the fabric that is news coverage.

Was their decision down-right boneheaded? Maybe not, but it does seriously step on the independent coverage of the news.

Small newspaper groups, or individually owned newspapers, radio stations and television stations may find &uot;Big Brother&uot; isn't the government, it's a huge corporation.

Clif Lusk is managing editor of The Messenger. Contact him via e-mail at clif.lusk@troymessenger. com.