Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What Media Consolidation? Whose Quality Journalism? Response Below

I was asked by a documentary film maker if I would agree to be interviewed for a film on the media ownership issue, specifically the FCC hearings that are being held around the country. I was asked:
Our major focus is how consolidation affects journalism. Is quality journalism declining, morphing, getting better? Does it have any affect at all?
My response follows:

Well, I remain a bit hesitant. I'm perplexed by your question of whether, as the result of consolidation, quality journalism is declining, morphing or getting better.

First, I'm not sure what consolidation you refer to. The one that has liberated me from the hegemony of the 1960s three national TV networks that were the airwaves in the time of the FCC 's Newton Minow's "Vast Wasteland" speech? Or is it the 2007 television landscape in which those three networks have half the audience ratings they had then and indeed the now five companies that own broadcast networks, combined with all their owned cable networks, have a smaller prime time market share than in the 1970s? Maybe the 1970s when each of those three networks each carried 30 minutes of evening news (at the same hour so I could only watch one-- there were no VCRs or PVRs) or 2007, when I can not only watch them but three others that go on 24/7 with news and info, not to mention services such as New York 1 or New England Cable News that keep me apprised on the local developments?

Second, I'm not sure if the range of "diversity" fits into your notion of quality. I do recall that the media critics of the 1950s and 60s and 70s and into the 80s complained that there was little diversity in television. So I guess they would have been celebrating the arrival in 1986 (concurrent with the FCC loosening ownership limits from 7 to 12 TV stations) of the Fox Network, which brought a noticeably different brand of programming (e.g. "Married with Children"). And I was sure they would cheer cable’s Fox News Network, which, rather than duplicating what we already had brought a noticeably diverse approach. But I think neither brought cheers from the critics-- just from the viewers. I suppose critics meant the kind of diversity they liked, not the taste of the great unwashed. Be careful what you wish for I always say.

Was the quality journalism standard the period of Hearst's Yellow Journalism? Or when Tammany Hall ran
New York City and City Hall reporters were in their pockets? Or, again, was it the 1960s, when the Philadelphia Inquirer, owned by local publisher Walter Annenberg, ran such a rag that he would not let his editors show any photos of gubernatorial candidate Milt Shapp on the front page because he disliked him? No, I would guess you are thinking of the quality that became associated with the Inquirer after the Miami-based Knight chain bought it, hired Gene Roberts from The New York Times, and started winning a string of Pulitzer Prizes. (I guess we could also consider Col. McCormick's Chicago ("Dewey Beats Truman") Tribune or William Loebs Manchester Union Leader as standard bearers for locally owned journals.)

Or maybe you were referring to the quality journalism on the 7000 radio stations-- mostly AM-- that existed in 1970, when the leading pop stations in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, LA, Denver, Seattle, etc. were all using the same top 40 play list they bought from national syndication services. Then again, maybe the Golden Age of radio journalism dates back to 1937, when four radio networks and their owned local stations accounted for 50% of industry revenues, much more than the four largest radio groups have today. Or was it 1947, when 94% of all radio stations were part of only four networks?

Probably any quality radio journalism is the product of the 20% of all 14,000 radio stations we have today that are non-commercial, getting most of their identical programming created for them from two national networks in Washington (NPR) or Minneapolis (APM).

And, you may notice, I haven't even mentioned the Internet, YouTube, Yahoo's Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone series , Huffington Post, Buzz Machine,, Pegasus News,, Al Jazeera's streaming TV and the BBC, too, for a start.

So in the end, what I need to know is, what is your benchmark for "consolidation" and what is your standard for "quality?"

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1 comment:

Piper121 said...

Hi Ben,

You raise some great points and give reason for the FCC to further relax media ownership rules. I work for the National Association of Broadcasters and it is imperative that the FCC take another look at modernizing the outdated rules that make it difficult for local broadcasters to compete with internet, cable and satellite.

We can't forget that people still depend on local TV stations for free local news and information.

Thanks again for your insight. More info is available here