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Campaign's lasting effect for media

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The partisan cast of Fox's audience is a consequence of the network's business model and its on-air structure as a kind of right-wing electronic op-ed page - a 24-hour cycle on which studio chat shows are strung like beads linked by snippets of news. Fair and balanced it may not be, but cheap and opinionated it surely is.

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CNN, by contrast, has pursued a brand of journalism that attempts to observe the traditional mainstream ethical attachment to balance and dispassion. Whether it can maintain that stance as its audience drifts more solidly Democratic is an open question. The logic of broadcast management in which programming decisions are so intimately directed by viewer preferences would seem to argue against it. Clearly, perceived political bias doesn't bother many people; increasingly larger shares of the audience are tuning to cable stations for news.

The specter of TV journalism divided along partisan, ideological lines is disturbing enough, but it pales alongside the implications of the most serious media controversy to erupt in the campaign's closing weeks: the abortive attempt by Sinclair Broadcasting to order all its stations to air an anti-Kerry documentary in prime time.

However influential old media - as in newspapers - may remain, and however significant new media - as in the blogosphere - may become, the majority of Americans get most of their news from local television. That's been true for more than a generation, and it's one of the reasons the Sinclair flap ignited such passions. All of the Baltimore-based broadcast company's stations are in small- and medium-size cities, places where the importance of local TV news is amplified.

As Elizabeth Jensen and other Los Angeles Times reporters have documented, the chain has grown in the face of what amounts to Federal Communications Commission indifference to its own regulatory strictures on media concentration. In several instances, Sinclair has been allowed to control two stations in the same market. It has been allowed, moreover, to compel all its stations - and remember, each is individually licensed to operate in the public interest - to air news and conservative commentary produced by the corporate headquarters.

The ability of an operation like that to focus all its resources on tipping a tight election is obvious, which is why all hell broke lose when Sinclair announced plans to air the anti-Kerry documentary. Threats of lawsuits, boycotts, and congressionally directed regulatory action followed. Sinclair backed down.

The problem is this: While what Sinclair proposed to do was, by every defensible journalistic standard, wrong and unethical, it was entitled to behave so as an assertion of its rights under the First Amendment. The First Amendment protects all speech, not just true speech or good speech or fair speech. It affords its highest protection, moreover, to political speech, which the documentary - whatever its moral or factual defects - most assuredly is.

This threat to the most fundamental of our liberties was created by the FCC's failure to defend the public's interest. Media concentration raises the stakes in any given legal controversy to a point where it virtually invites legal and governmental intrusion into the media's editorial decisions, putting the First Amendment at unconscionable risk.

There's an unlooked-for lesson from this campaign.

Tim Rutten writes about the media for the Los Angeles Times. © Los Angeles Times.