Friday, February 09, 2007

Columbia Forum Yields No Answers But Highlights Ambiguities on Media Ownership Issue

The mini-symposium at Columbia Journalism School yesterday on Media Reform: Is it Good for Journalism? was barely a toe-in-the-water event. Still, for anyone who was seriously interested in both sides of the pancake of the so-called media reform debate, it provided more grist for the mill than the three day one dimensional pep rally that the movement holds annually, mostly recently last month in Memphis.

The usual suspects made the usual speeches. Keynoter Walter Cronkite, looking a tad unsteady in gait but at 90 years old was nonetheless sharp on his message, delivered in that familiar deep and smooth voice. He lamented the cuts in newsrooms and repeated that good journalism was important for democracy. It occurred to me that it is not likely we will ever again have a news personality on the order of Cronkite. He was the CBS Evening News anchor when we had only three choices for television news—and because the three newscasts were usually broadcast at the same time, we had to make a choice of which one to watch. Uncle Walter was the top dog of the three in the 1970s. There were no replays (and, note for those under 25, there were no VCRs or PVRs). Disaggregation (read "lots of alternatives to choose from") means fragmentation.

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps also stayed in his role. Apparently not one to use the up and down channel button on his cable remote, he continues to look to re-impose the failed structural remedies on broadcasters in the heyday of television regulation: Let's bring back the Fairness Doctrine and those every three year competitive license renewal hearings, the better to hold the local stations accountable to government bureaucrats for a determination of what they think is the “public interest." That may have made sense in the days of scarce spectrum but not in an age of nearly unlimuted bandwidth.

Given the short time and the many panelists (nine of us had a shot in two groups over about two hours), it was hard to get much more than a flavor for how rich a true debate could get. I contributed some of the points I made in a recenty entry here asking what is even meant by "ownership consolidation" or "quality journalism." Moderator Dick Wald, summing up my panel, concluded that what was missing was data. True, there was little in this session. I tried to bring in a few specific points— only one person in the audience (Columbia’s own Eli Noam) knew that the five largest media companies (as measured by revenue) among them owned only one newspaper in the U.S. So these ”media powerhouses” as they are frequently called cannot be blamed for any perceived loss in quality print journalism. But I reminded Wald afterward that there was a plethora of data. The problem is that it does not all point in the same direction, suggesting that answers are complex and nuanced.

Indeed, probably the most useful take away from the afternoon was a comment by Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Local ownership, the Center’s research has found, does not translate into high quality content. And large chain ownership does not default to lower quality. There are better and worse local owners, better and worse large corporate owners. Based on the Center’s own empirical research over the years on the quality of television journalism, Rosenstiel reminded the audience that good journalism or poor journalism was not a function of the ownership structure per se but of the values of those who controlled whatever entity.

Case in point: Sitting next to me was Frank Blethen, publisher and part of the family that owns the Seattle Times. His family’s stewardship of that paper over decades makes a strong case for local ownership. But two of us, myself and later Norman Pearlstine, most recently editor-in-chief at Time Inc., referred to the gross abuse of power of Walter Annenberg, a Philadelphia boy who owned the Philadelphia Inquirer and how it evetually became one of the top newspapers in the country only after being acquired by the Knight Ridder chain, based in Miami.

Rosenstiel also was on point when he observed that the publicly owned chains have a tendency to add people and resources to improve the weak properties they buy, recognizing that there is some correlation between bigger audiences (and therefore profit) and higher quality. Yet the same chains are known to cut back expenses at acquisitions where they feel that there is too much being spent for too little return, therefore being open to the charge they bring down some measure of quality. (You can find an example of just this phenomenon on pages 16-17 of the 3rd edition of Who Owns the Media?, referring to two newspapers acquired by Gannett). On the one hand. On the other hand.

Jack Shafer, editor-at-large for Slate, was his usual voice of reason. He reiterated his point from a recent Slate column that the media reform movement should be viewed as a media regulation agenda. He reminded us of the (failed) attempt of the Nixon Administration to use the license renewal process for two television stations owned by the Washington Post Co. to blackmail the newspaper into easing up on its Watergate reporting. Although Commissioner Copps later said that reinforces his call for a ban on cross ownership, he misses the point: Whenever anyone is beholden to the subjective whims of a government entity for its survival it may feel constrained in being critical of that government. The media reform folks have it backward: If they regulated broadcasting in this way they are more likely to stifle voices than to unleash them.

All in all, the audience of about 300 listened respectfully, asked a few questions and filed out. I doubt if many minds were changed. Hopefully at least a few left with a better sense of the complexity of the issue. Dean Nicholas Lemann has got the ball rolling. But is there an encore?

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