Media Consolidation a Threat, News Exec Says
December 2, 2004
By Tux Turkel, Portland Press Herald
Ongoing consolidation of media ownership threatens American democracy, according to Frank Blethen, board chairman of Blethen Maine Newspapers, because it saps investment in local journalism and stifles controversial coverage that conflicts with corporate interests.
Corporate control of mass media will increase, Blethen argued, unless residents and businesspeople express their concerns to Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.
And don't count on the Internet to compensate by providing a diversity of opinion, he said. Many of the top news Web sites are controlled by the same companies that dominate conventional media.
Blethen offered his views as the featured speaker Wednesday at the monthly breakfast meeting of the Portland Community Chamber. An outspoken critic of media consolidation, Blethen is publisher and chief executive officer of The Seattle Times and a fourth-generation newspaper owner.
The Seattle Times formed Blethen Maine Newspapers in 1998, when it bought the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Coastal Journal in Bath. It also operates the Maine Today.com family of Internet sites and Maine Community Newspapers.
But this sort of independent, family owned newspaper chain is vanishing, Blethen said. Today, he said, five corporations control the bulk of America's mass media, including television, radio, newspapers and movies. That's down from 10 a decade ago and 20 in 1990.
"If we remain passive and watch while fewer and fewer owners control our news and information," he said, "our democracy will steadily erode."
The erosion comes not so much from bias, Blethen said, but from control. An example relevant in Maine is Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns 62 television stations, including WGME, Channel 13, in Portland. Residents are familiar with the controversy over the company's plans to air a documentary critical of John Kerry days before the presidential election.
Much of the criticism centered on the company's conservative politics, but Blethen said the bigger issue is the degree of control exercised by Sinclair, which reaches one quarter of the nation's television audience.
"That's too much control for anybody, irrespective of their political or economic motives," he said.
Media concentration can have practical impacts, as well.
Blethen referred to what happened in January 2002, when a train carrying 10,000 gallons of ammonia derailed in Minot, N.D., causing a spill and a toxic cloud. Authorities wanted to warn residents to stay indoors, but when they called six of the seven radio stations in town, no one answered. It turned out Texas-based Clear Channel Communications owned all six stations and no local staff was available at the time.
Some elected officials, including Maine's congressional delegation, are concerned. When the FCC tried to enact new rules last year to let media companies own more television stations and newspapers in the same cities, the agency received 2 million responses from the public, almost all opposed. Blethen asked Portland-area business leaders Wednesday to continue pressuring officials in Wash- ington.
Blethen distributed a written list of what he considers principles for reclaiming America's media. His first priority is to maintain current FCC rules, including minority ownership requirements and public service obligations. He also supports new legislation to ban companies from owning both television stations and newspapers in the same market. Radio ownership rules should be rolled back to 1996, when regulations were relaxed.
In a question-and-answer period that followed, some participants expressed views that the Internet and small media outlets have actually increased the diversity of opinion in America. But Blethen said the majority of people get most of their news from major media outlets, most of which are conglomerates that don't focus on journalism. That has led to a lack of resources for investigative reporting and local coverage.
"What you have to worry about," he said, "are the stories that aren't being told."