If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it

The Federal Communications Commission, in a disturbing reversal of its previous stance, has been trying since Sept. 13 to overturn the 25-year-old ban of newspaper/broadcast media cross-ownership. Lawmakers enacted the ban, which bars one person or corporation from owning a television station and a newspaper in the same area, ostensibly to ensure a diversity of viewpoints within media markets. Though the actual motive behind the ban can be called into question – some speculate then-President Richard Nixon initiated it as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy against the press – it has served its purpose during the last quarter century and should not be repealed.

Spurred by the FCC’s recommendation, Rep. Scott Klug, R-Wis., recently introduced the Newspaper Ownership Act to the U.S. House of Representatives as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., sent an identical bill to the U.S. Senate. The Newspaper Association of America and the National Association of Broadcasters, along with several media watchdog groups including Editor & Publisher magazine’s editorial board, have since lent their support to repealing the ban.

But doing so would pose a serious and unnecessary risk to journalists across the nation and to the public they serve. We find the FCC’s reasoning flawed in that it groundlessly put the burden of proof on those who see the need to keep the cross-ownership ban in place. Since the ban has served its function for more than two decades and has been upheld several times by the U.S. Supreme Court, those who wish to repeal it should have to give reason – beyond the superfluous benefit of increased profits – why a proven system is suddenly no longer viable.

Any argument the act’s supporters could deliver would be outweighed by the potential and probable pitfalls the act would allow. The current recession hit newspapers particularly hard. Some experts have estimated today’s advertising market is worse than it has been since the Great Depression. We recognize that allowing newspaper companies to merge or be bought out by gigantic corporations like AOL Time Warner would shore up their finances. But journalism and the democracy it enables are about more than profit margins, and the people a free press serves are above the financial bottom line. And the newsroom restructuring born of recent newspaper consolidations shows increasing profit and increasing quality content are mutually exclusive.

During the last two decades, the newspaper industry alone has been subjected to a dangerous amount of merging. Gannett, one of the largest newspaper corporations in the country, prints one of every seven papers purchased in the United States. Gannett, Knight Ridder and Tribune Co. together own 25 percent of America’s newspapers. The result has decimated newspaper competition within media markets, leaving most cities and towns with one daily paper or several dailies owned by the same company. Further diluting the diversity by allowing television or cable companies to purchase newspapers would do a disservice to the public that depends on them.

The newspaper industry is in trouble. Historically, papers have almost always been financially shaky because the nature of the business is not – and cannot become – increased capital. Yet they have always found a way to survive while remaining viable servants and watchdogs of the public interest. Lawmakers must not jeopardize this by passing the Newspaper Ownership Act.