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Wednesday, 05 July 2006 00:00

Media freedom could easily slip away

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When Federal Communications Commission officials came to Asheville last week to discuss media ownership regulations, they got an earful from a crowd that was mostly against media consolidation of any kind. We hope FCC officials get this reaction everywhere they go, because the decisions they make in the next few years could have a profound and, perhaps, chilling effect on the media as we know it today.

Four years ago the FCC voted to relax media ownership rules, a move that was roundly criticized on many fronts. Thankfully, that decision was thrown out by the courts, so the FCC is beginning another round of public hearings on the issue. It is expected this time to approve another set of new rules that will once again relax media ownership rules, but it remains to be seen just how extensive.

These are many, many reasons as to why media consolidation is bad for local communities and the country. We celebrated our freedom in many different ways on Independence Day this week, but standing up for a diverse and easily accessible media will help keep this country on the right course. That’s how important a free, independent media is.

A couple of years, all’s changed

On one side of this debate is an issue near and dear to my heart. Now, however, my feelings have changed somewhat as new media have developed.

I’m talking about the importance of independent newspapers — monthlies, weeklies, dailies or any other kind. Today a handful of giant companies own a great majority of this country’s daily and community newspapers. In the long run I think that will hurt journalism and stymie discussion on many important issues. The publicly traded papers are too concerned with profits for stockholders and not building great newspapers and communities.

The issues the FCC will decide in the next few years, however, are more fundamental than the concern that media conglomerates will erode journalistic quality. It is expected that the FCC will again approve measures allowing a newspaper to also own a television station in the same market. This is not good for journalism, but independent media will survive.

No, the more important fight now is not for print journalism — it’s for the Internet and digital media. With new digital technology, the rules for television and radio have changed dramatically. Where once the FCC made decisions about who would control the airwaves and which broadcast band a television or radio station would control, such issues are now just about obsolete.

What has become important is who will control that high-speed Internet hook up that is coming into your home and office? For most of us, it’s a large cable company or some telecom — Verizon, BellSouth, etc.

Imagine this scenario: what if that provider decided that you could only have access to certain Web pages, could only use certain Internet phone companies, and must pay extra to download music files from anywhere except its preferred site. The freedom we have now to access literally millions of blogs, Web sites and other digital media could be effectively shut down.

Or, if not shut down, we could have to go through “toll booths” or pay for access to certain kinds of sites. What if the garage band from Bryson City wanted to provide free samples of its music to anyone who wanted it. The Internet provider could force band members to pay a surchage before its music would be downloadable.

It sounds far-fetched, but in reality it’s not. Think about how your cable provider treats us now. No cherry-picking of stations you want. Nope, you get a couple of choices of packages, and pay extra as you go up in channels. Imagine a Web access scenario that was similar. Those who oppose these limits to Internet access have labeled their fight “net neutrality.” The FCC has endorsed the concept, but no one — Congress, in particular — has enacted laws saying these last-mile Internet providers can’t limit access.

 

More and more

It’s not just about the traditional Internet. The reach of digital technology in the last five years has moved into movies, long-distance telephone, televisions shows and more. Even now, technology could allow would us to have dozens of local television stations.

But the large media companies lobbying the FCC and Congress do not want to let just anybody create a portal into your living room. They have the money and the influence. It seems quaint, now, to worry about huge newspaper companies perhaps owning a television station in the same market. The FCC certainly needs to restrain these kinds of consolidations, but there are a whole array of issues now converging.

It was in 1945 that the Supreme Court affirmed the notion that media mergers that limit competition are unconstitutional. As consolidation grows and limits to access expand, diversity and competition will suffer. In the last three years, 3,300 radio and TV stations have changed hands. Newspaper conglomerates are buying up small papers across the country.

Congressmen, the White House and the FCC need to hear from the public that the wave of media consolidation must be stopped. Silence now will lead to an even worse silencing later.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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