For those just waking up from a multidecade nap, the world has changed markedly since 1975. Led Zeppelin, Olivia Newton-John and Chicago no longer top the record charts. Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl have joined Hank Williams in the great Opry House in the sky. “Maude,” “Columbo” and “Happy Days” no longer rule the nation’s television screens. Most of us know all that, if we remember 1975 at all.
There’s another relic of the 1970s that deserves consignment to an attic at the Smithsonian Institution: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules forbidding ownership of both a television station and a newspaper in the same market. In the year “The Jeffersons” were “moving on up,” the newspaper was the king of the mountain, and the industry was robust and thriving. This “cross-ownership” rule made sense. Today? Not so much.
In 2000, the Chicago-based Tribune Company merged with Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Company, bringing newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun into their orbit. By the end of the decade, those newspapers, along with the company’s flagship Chicago Tribune, were hurting from the recession, overleveraging and competition from the Internet.
Tribune declared bankruptcy in December 2008, to emerge four years later. Its new owners are now trying to sell off the newspapers with media mogul Rupert Murdoch said to be among those interested in buying the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers are noted for many things: establishment sobriety in the Times of London, lurid headlines in the New York Post, authoritative business reporting in The Wall Street Journal, topless models in London’s Sun, and folksy local reporting in Australia. Almost all of Mr. Murdoch’s print properties are noted for something else: They stay in business.
The one paper he closed — the British scandal sheet News of the World — spurred him to separate his newspaper business from the more-profitable film and television holdings of his News Corp. That may be enough to blunt the “cross-ownership” dilemma, which would be good news for Mr. Murdoch. The bad news is that the departure of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Commissioner Robert M. McDowell may delay a vote on further modifications to the cross-ownership rule.
When there were only three network-television channels, fear of a monopoly of the news was genuine. Those days are long past, replaced by a dizzying array of news sources, good, bad and otherwise. Those who don’t like The Los Angeles Times can pick up The Los Angeles Daily News or Investor’s Business Daily, or visit websites such as L.A. Observed. Microsites cover specific neighborhoods and areas in Los Angeles, as they do here in the Washington area.
Broadcast is equally diverse. Just about every major metropolitan area has its own 24-hour cable news channel, competing with expanded television news on stations affiliated with the major broadcast networks. Washington has two all-news radio stations slugging it out for listeners.
The risks of business are precisely the ones businessmen should be able to take, unfettered by distant (or even nearby) bureaucrats comparing the weight of a gnat with that of a fruit fly, hoping to balance the scales. If the FCC can’t, or won’t, give any businessman the freedom to take business risks in the media world, Congress should, by repealing obsolete rules.
The Washington Times