Many voices

April 20, 2003

FROM EMBEDDED newpaper reporters to real-time video shots of bombs bursting over Baghdad to continuously updated Web sites, the war in Iraq has surpassed any previous conflict for its immediacy of information, diversity of images and abundance of news stories. It is no doubt America's most covered war.

That's something the Federal Communications Commission should keep in mind these days as it considers changes to a 28-year-old rule limiting media ownership of newspapers and broadcast outlets.

Even back in 1975, when the FCC adopted the ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast companies, its reasons were far from compelling.

But today, when media consumers are faced with hundreds of options, the rule barring newspapers from buying broadcast stations in their markets and vice-versa is downright wrong-headed.

The rule was originally based on the premise that because of the limited broadcast radio spectrum, the federal government must step in to ensure that a diversity of news sources was available to the American people.

Ironically, that somewhat tortured bow to the First Amendment right to free speech has resulted in denying, through limitation, that right to those who already own newspapers or broadcast stations.

What's more, at the time of the ruling, the FCC admitted that future expansion of public information sources might well require a reassessment of the cross-ownership ban.


In 1975, there was only a small handful of broadcast networks and 953 full-power television stations. There were fewer than 8,000 radio stations and the FM band was still something of curiosity. Ten million people got cable TV, and satellite hook-ups and the World Wide Web were dreams for the future.

By 2001, there were 1,678 full-power TV stations and 2,396 low-power ones; there were 12,932 radio stations. Cable TV subscribers numbered 70 million. Add to that 231 national cable stations and the Internet explosion, and the conclusion that public information sources have expanded is remarkable only for its understatement.

And what about diversity of content and opinion? It is greater than ever, and fears that companies owning both a broadcast station and a newspaper in a single market would require them to speak with one voice have proved unfounded.

Tribune Co., which owns The Sun, is among those petitioning the FCC to lift the ban, so this newspaper is hardly a disinterested party.

Be that as it may, the right to cross-ownership of media is fully in line with the paper's historic support of First Amendment rights, the free flow of ideas and a free market economy.

Recent studies conducted by the FCC and other groups have found no harm to the public in cross-ownership. In fact, they found that stations owned by companies that also owned newspapers broadcast more public affairs and news programs than other stations.

It all adds up: The cross-ownership rule should be eliminated immediately.

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