Public Debate Disempowered: A Public Rebuttal to the Chicago Tribune

Posted by Mitchell - August 21, 2012 (entry 690)

On December 19, 2007, in the wake of an FCC controversial decision to try to gut a bunch of media ownership rules, the Chicago Tribune gloated on their editorial page about their policy win at the FCC (one which would later get overturned in court and which didn't prevent their slide into bankruptcy). The Tribune's op-ed, entitled "Public debate, empowered", never got the public takedown it so richly deserved. We would like to take this opportunity to eviscerate the op-ed here.

First disclaimers first: The Federal Communications Commission reached a decision Tuesday that will benefit Tribune Co., the owner of this newspaper. Those of us who work for Tribune also benefit: The ruling keeps our employer from having to dump several properties at fire-sale prices during a de facto media recession. You should know about our self-interest before you read our opinion: that we also think this decision is good for the American people.

Addicts, whether to drugs or money, think that their badly-planned post hoc rationalizations are good for everyone, though evidence readily suggests otherwise. But read on...

The FCC voted 3-2 to ease a ban on companies owning both a newspaper and a broadcast station in the nation's top 20 media markets. And in short order Tuesday, a news junkie could -- for free -- peruse different accounts of the vote as chronicled by reporters from The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. From CNN, The Washington Times and Dow Jones MarketWatch. From, Reuters and the Associated Press. The list goes on. And on. What, you want more far-flung views? The BBC also told the tale.

Of course. Even the corporate media will cover FCC rulings after they happen, especially for rulings they like, and even if such rulings fuck the public. But I don't need to read a headline about a tornado leveling my house after it happened; I need warnings and coverage of tornadoes in advance so that I can take action before shit falls from the sky. And sure, I can read the media business press three hours a day (it's even online!) to find out the latest conspiracies against me and against the public, and I can get my microscope and to read between the lines, and I can email other media activists to find out other facts, including plenty of stories that never get even that level of attention, but most people reasonably don't have the time to do all of even a tiny cricket's-fraction of that. Media outlets like you are supposed to provide screaming headlines for things that matter and explain the context and its importance in plain terms rather than rationalize anti-public stupid policies that you benefit from after they pass.

This Chicago Tribune editorial will be but one of many that, together, offer a wealth of clashing views on the FCC's decision. Not to mention the gusher of easily available (read: all but unavoidable) commentary from special interest groups, from dyspeptic TV talking heads, from thoughtful bloggers in their jammies. In short, with so many sources competing today to tell the FCC story and put it in perspective, is it rational to worry about media conglomerates somehow limiting the public debate? That debate has never been so widespread, so robust.

Um, yes, actually, it is rational to worry about media conglomerates limiting the public debate. The lion's share of the internet, from major content providers to the major internet service providers, are provided by corporate conglomerates. Moreover, most of the content that people rely on as news grist for that comment mill come from corporate media outlets. Our glorious age of viral video and instant tweets and Facebook forwards hasn't really changed that fact all that much since the Tribune first published this turd of an op-ed.

And not just on such obtusities as ruminations of the FCC. Consider: Last week's indictment of another key adviser to Gov. Rod Blagojevich; Tuesday's remarks by Mayor Richard M. Daley criticizing his son Patrick's involvement in a company that had a city contract; public complaints in many communities about the conduct of Chicago police officers. Never, we'd wager, have so many issues received such intimate attention from so many chroniclers and commentators. You're forgiven if you don't understand why some politicians think the government should control who owns certain outlets for information and opinion.

There you go again, playing the government-boogeyman card, even though you spent years lobbying the government to give you multi-billion-dollar cross-ownership waivers from the government for your broadcast licenses for your TV and radio stations provided free by the government. You complain about the big bad government yet you go on sucking on the teat of the government with waivers, you hypocritical welfare queen, and even with this coddling you went into bankruptcy anyway for four years.

You're similarly forgiven if you're boggled by the notion that, in the Internet era when anyone can become a publisher or a producer overnight, anyone on Earth thinks the opportunities available to new players are diminishing.

I'd believe this canard if the Tribune were to trade in their multi-billion-dollar radio and broadcast TV licenses for a website, but I don't because they didn't and won't. Why would they? The values of those licenses, up until recently, have grown greater than the rate of inflation. The old joke still applies: the only way to lose money with a broadcast license is to have it stolen from you.

At heart, though, those two concerns energize opponents of the FCC's relaxation of cross-ownership rules. That decision will be challenged by folks who think it will shrink the range of opinions and the amount of investigative journalism that American media companies offer. The truth is just the opposite. The best way to shrink news-gathering and opinion -- to reduce coverage to some lowest common denominator -- is for the government to forbid the sharing of resources that allows media companies to employ more journalists and spend more money on their work. This issue of quality often gets short shrift when conversation turns to cross-ownership rules. No, that's not a boast that only healthy media companies can, and will, generously deploy resources or get every story right.

Journalism has been under unremitting attack in the corporate sector for quite a while now, and it now appears that the corporate media is getting out of the journalism game entirely. But what's the idiots at the Tribune are describing here is not a cost-sharing measure to boost journalism, it's a cost-cutting measure to reduce journalism costs. Don't believe it? Believe this: even after activists cockblocked the formal consolidation rules in court, the Tribune and other corporate media blowholes are consolidating anyway, sharing resources and laying off staff. The phenomenon even has a name -- "covert consolidation". When are the intrepid journalists at the Tribune going to write screaming front-page headlines about this? Oh that's right, because working journalists aren't supposed to report on their bosses if they want to keep their jobs.

Defenders of cross-ownership rules cling to the notion that big is bad, which it can be. What they choose not to grasp is that big also can be empowering: Much of this newspaper's most difficult, most costly reporting -- on environmental impacts of China's industrial growth, on the two-party tussle to choose a new American president, on disciplinary lapses involving Chicago police officers -- reaches you because Tribune Co. has created economies of scale. Not every news outlet owned by this company has to survive only with the reporting and commentary it generates. You want newspapers that fiercely disagree on which candidates to endorse? Tribune and companies like it can afford to support a cacophony of clashing voices.

So, just because the Tribune has been caught committing acts of journalism, we should cave to this baloney lobbying campaign for greater concentration? Wrong again. As big media corporations like the Tribune have grown and consolidated, they've been scaling back on their journalism operations. Both journalism cutbacks and media concentration are slaves to the Tribune bottom line -- in the former case by cutting costs, in the latter case by combining revenue streams. If the Tribune were serious about this, they'd hire back some of the journalists the Tribune laid off, or someone like Salim Muwakkil (who actually was a Tribune columnist).

The FCC's decision will allow more companies to support those multiple voices. And that will benefit more Americans. Why so? Because companies like Tribune that own more than one news outlet live with a threat far more menacing than government rules about ownership: Today's world, today's state, today's metropolis, offers more options for news and commentary than citizens have ever known. If we don't serve you well, lots of other people will.

Maybe not. Filling in that void of news hasn't been easy; just ask the folks at the (now defunct) Chicago News Cooperative, or the (now defunct) Chi-Town Daily News, or (now defunct) Third Coast Press. I'm not going to shed a tear over the Tribune's likely impending selloff; the Tribune has a sordid history, but I wouldn't call for a flawed institution like the Tribune to fill in the void of journalism. We can do better, and there are now proposals on the table to do just that.

One more thing -- this article was found in the Tribune's own database archive, and is preceded by an abstract that reads as follows:

ABSTRACT: Last week's indictment of another key adviser to Gov. Rod Blagojevich; Tuesday's remarks by Mayor Richard M. Daley criticizing his son Patrick's involvement in a company that had a city contract; public complaints in many communities about the conduct of Chicago police officers.

The very issue discussed in the op-ed, media concentration and its effects, is not even mentioned in the op-ed's abstract in the Tribune's own database. Given that a lot of people searching the database will read or not read an article on the basis of abstract, you'd think that the Tribune is trying to avoid wider awareness of the issue. Why yes, I can feel that public empowering right now. Oh, baby! Way to go, guys. Not.

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