Regulating the news

Within the next few months, the Federal Communications Commission will decide if fewer companies should have more control over how Americans get news. The impending decision, for which a public hearing will be held Thursday, is making strange bedfellows of liberals and conservatives who both oppose cross-ownership of local newspapers and television stations. Conservatives argue that competition allows the best to thrive. Liberals argue competition brings diversity. But the sorry state of news today proves they're both delusional.

It's time to admit to the public what most people in the trenches of the news business already know: competition doesn't bring quality and diversity. Competition brings profits to shareholders and overhyped, underreported, mediocre journalism to the public.

First, the diversity argument. I live in Boston, one of the most media-rich cities in the US. With two metropolitan daily newspapers, six daily television news operations, and a couple of news talk radio stations, this city is a galaxy of news. There's plenty of wacky political maneuvering, housing and rental scams, college shenanigans, and funky people doing funky things to keep each of those news organizations busy.

But even in this competitive, media-diverse town, we often get the same news stories with the same people in them. Radio and TV stations as well as news wire services recycle stories that ran first in the newspapers. And the newspapers check out the late-evening newscasts to make sure they have the top stories airing on the TV stations.

On the national level, a front-page story in The New York Times one day often reappears as a news feature within a day or two on the network evening news. As a former CNN producer, I recall too many news meetings where The New York Times led the agenda. My friends who have worked at the other networks tell the same tale.

The fear is that newspapers and TV stations owned by the same company in the same market will turn out the same news. Reality check: We already get the same news. Competition has not given us, and will not give us, more news stories and more viewpoints.

The other argument - that competition breeds quality - is equally laughable. Most local investigative reporting is confined to consumer affairs or the hapless government worker caught sleeping/golfing/carousing on the job. We can't find enterprising stories on the local news because those stories take time, people, and money that local TV newsrooms do not have.

Local news operations are on the verge of burnout each day just to cover the big visual stories - the weather, the state budget cuts, murders, fires, and car wrecks. The local news producer or director who decides not to cover the overturned truck story in order to give a reporter more crew time to interview for that prescription-drug story won't last long at most stations.

It's no better at the networks - take CNN. Competition has actually worsened its news coverage. In the '90s, when I worked for CNN, it aired reports from its bureaus on other important, interesting, and, yes, entertaining events and people when no "big story" dominated the day's news. Since then, CNN has drastically cut its bureaus and substituted talk for reporting to keep up with the competition.

Try to find an international news story not related to the Bush administration's foreign-policy agenda on the cable or broadcast networks. Competition has all but eliminated international news because it does not appeal to the mass audience needed to win the ratings/ad sales war. Competition has led to copycat, lowest-common-denominator news. It's been said that owning a newspaper or TV station is like having a license to print money. The news media get the right to make money on a necessary service, but without having to take any responsibility.

The issue is not who owns the media; it is what they do with it. The First Amendment becomes the shield to fend off any calls for government regulation. So news consumers get the media equivalent of the Corvair - uninformative at any speed. The FCC needs to assert its role as the news-consumer protection agency, safeguarding the public who get the news, not the people who deliver it.

Janet Kolodzy is a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and at CNN.

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