War coverage could alter U.S. media policy

Reporting may influence debate about ownership

More consolidation coming?

FCC to decide soon on any rules changes

March 30, 2003|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

News coverage of the war in Iraq, unprecedented in its frequency and immediacy, may influence something long after the war concludes: Who gets to own the media that provide the news?

The Federal Communications Commission has been ordered by Congress and the U.S. Court of Appeals to re-examine its rules on media concentration. It plans to decide on any changes perhaps by June.

The commission roughly set that timing last year. Its convergence with the U.S.-led attack on the regime of Saddam Hussein is purely coincidental. But the coverage from Iraq is apt to loom large in the debate, with one side arguing that it proves the boundless diversity of information in the Internet age and the other claiming that American media have been rendered timid by the creeping consolidation in the industry.

Current restrictions forbid a company from owning in a single city two of the top television stations or a TV station and large daily newspaper, or from owning stations across the country that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience.

If the FCC is inclined to allow a greater concentration of media - and many observers believe it is - the war coverage might provide added weight, and political cover, for that view.

There might be some irony in the fact that a patchwork of rules that began in 1941 out of fears of the rise of totalitarian regimes in Europe would be argued to be proven irrelevant because of 21st-century coverage of the overthrow of a totalitarian regime in the Middle East.

Advocates of increased deregulation of TV and print media, including FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, have long argued that the Internet and cable outlets have vastly altered how the public receives information.

The recent war coverage proves that point, they say - with round-the-clock reports on television and the Internet from journalists "embedded" with soldiers on the battlefront as well as Web sources as varied as the British Broadcasting Corp. and Arab television station Al-Jazeera.

Just this past Thursday, Powell told the Media Institute, a nonprofit First Amendment watchdog group, that he found it "thrilling to see the power of the media and its reach, and shocking to see war brought so close." The Iraq invasion exemplifies the need to allow media companies to expand to have the resources and efficiencies to cover global events, he said.

James L. Gattuso, a research fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, recently wrote in a newsletter for the Competitive Enterprise Institute: "The debate will be filled with endless factoids and pleadings. But ... when the commissioners finally sit down to assess the media marketplace, they will remember these days in March, and the cornucopia of information and perspectives that the market provided."

Viacom Corp., which owns CBS, Paramount Pictures, MTV and Black Entertainment Television; Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.; and Chicago-based Tribune Co., whose three dozen TV, radio stations and newspapers include The Sun, are among the conglomerates lobbying to change the rules.

They are opposed by an assortment of public interest groups, organized labor, movie stars and screenwriters who fear condensed power in Hollywood and other media companies that don't own multiple stations or intend cross-ownership of TV and newspapers.

The opponents argue that news outlets in fewer hands threatens the public's ability to know about news, especially on local issues.

The argument isn't new. The Supreme Court upheld the diversity model in 1943, arguing that the Associated Press couldn't discriminate in providing its wire service to local news outlets. But the question was reopened in 1996 when Congress required the FCC to justify its rules every two years.

Coverage of the Iraq war may not change the thinking of those most involved in the issue, especially because billions of dollars in broadcast revenue weigh in the balance. But the war reporting is something very tangible for a subject that often seems so esoteric that most Americans remain unaware an argument is being waged vigorously on their behalf.

Lawmakers, media executives and others who have argued that the protections against media concentration have become outmoded by technology couldn't have penned a better script than the digicammed, cell-phoned, cyber-coverage in Iraq, some say. "I almost felt bad about myself when I went to the Drudge Report for news," said Philip Napoli, a media professor at Fordham University in New York, who nevertheless marveled that he was able to access the Web site of muckraking reporter Matt Drudge when he tired of watching the cable news outlet CNN.

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