- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Former network newsman Dan Rather last week called on the president to apply to the press the government initiative used to rescue the banking and automotive industries. “Media reform should be an immediate national priority,” Mr. Rather insisted, and some in Congress agree.

Alarmed by layoffs in newsrooms across the country, Maryland’s Democratic Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, which would add newspapers to the growing list of entities receiving federal benefits. The subsidy in this case would come from granting tax-exempt status to newspapers.

Before breaking out the public’s checkbook to back these schemes, it is worth examining how Congress and the media share some of the responsibility for the current situation. While the Internet is generally held up as a convenient scapegoat for the industry’s troubles, ill-considered congressional action backed by breathless editorials from many of the newspapers most in need of help have slammed the door on reform that would have provided a more efficient business model.

Six years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to ease Nixon-era rules that prevent a company from making a deal to own both a newspaper and a television station within the same media market. The agency also tried to raise the cap on the number of broadcast television stations a single entity could own. The idea was that by sharing news-gathering resources, newspapers and television stations could reduce costs and improve service.

Left-wing groups such as Common Cause immediately howled in protest, insisting that the government step in to protect “diversity” of opinion and the flow of information.

The FCC’s two Democratic commissioners at the time, Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps, seized the opportunity and put on a roadshow to protest change. With the 2004 presidential election just around the corner, the pair were extremely effective in feeding the media frenzy. Their sideshows spun tales of evil corporate giants dominating small-town media markets like modern-day Citizen Kanes. The owner of the Seattle Times, Frank A. Blethen, testified before Congress that media deregulation would mean “the beginning of the end of our democracy.”

The claim that to allow combining news-gathering resources would end democracy or silence diversity is almost comic when one considers the endless news and entertainment outlets available on cable, satellite and the Internet. The market has never been more diverse.

That didn’t stop papers such as the Capital Times of Madison, Wis., from launching editorial broadsides. “As the year came to a close, close to 2,000 activists from across the United States and around the world converged in Madison to hear Bill Moyers’ rousing call for a national movement to reform the media so that it nurtures democracy, not just the corporate bottom lines of media conglomerates.”

The Capital Times got its wish as an activist court and Congress, in several votes, stepped in to overturn the 2003 FCC reforms. Last year, the Senate voted once more to disapprove of a second, very modest tweak to the cross-ownership rule. The result of maintaining the status quo has been predictable. The Capital Times and the Seattle Times’ cross-town rival, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, added themselves to a list of about 20 newspapers that have since ceased daily print operations.

It should come as no surprise then that FCC rules have their origin as a political weapon in a Sept. 15, 1972, Oval Office conversation. President Nixon discussed with his inner circle the best way to retaliate against The Washington Post for its Watergate coverage. At the time, The Post owned a television station, WTOP-TV, now WUSA, in Washington.

“The main thing is The Post is going to have damnable, damnable problems out of this one,” the president said. “They have a television station. … And they’re going to have to get it renewed. … The game has to be played awfully rough.”

Though the FCC never canceled the Post’s television license, the rule banning cross-ownership was enacted three years later and forced the sale of WTOP-TV.

By law, the FCC will need to revisit the media regulations, this time under President Obama’s pick for FCC chief, Julius Genachowski. As a former Internet media executive, Mr. Genachowski should know that more government intervention and bailouts will not be the real answer to the media’s problems. One hopes he will have the courage to persuade Senate Democrats to set aside this Watergate relic, which has been used to score partisan points, endanger cross-town rivals and stifle investigative journalism.

Richard Diamond served as a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commissioner from 2003 to 2006.

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