Media drop the ball on FCC rules changes

Sometimes it's hard to know what the real "story" is.

There's been a lot of hand wringing in newsrooms around the country over the past few weeks as the Jayson Blair/New York Times story became the Howell Raines/New York Times story.

Since Mr. Raines, the former editor of the paper, stepped down last week, journalists have been chattering. If one misguided and mentally unstable journalist can bring down the editorial regime at the nation's most respected newspaper, it can happen anywhere, or so the editors lament. The Blair saga already has many newspapers reexamining their policies on things like datelines, plagiarism, and fact checking in general.

This is all good and warranted. The Blair fiasco is a lamentable cautionary tale. But it was another story last week that should have raised more serious questions for journalists and the public.

Last Monday, the Federal Communications Commission dramatically overhauled the rules governing who can own what and how much in the media landscape. The changes have a potentially huge impact on how Americans get their news and entertainment - with the net effect probably being a reduction in the number of outlets available. The commission voted to allow TV networks to reach more viewers; to allow companies to own newspapers and TV and radio stations in the same city; and to allow companies in large markets to own as many as three TV stations in the same viewing area.

There was no question that the news media understood the changes to be a big story.

The day after the vote, The New York Times, on Page 1, called the FCC revisions "the most important changes to the nation's media ownership rules in a generation." The Washington Post gave the story similar front-page treatment. In fact, the day the rule changes were announced, they were big news everywhere. Websites made the changes a top story. Radio stations announced them.

But all that coverage only raises more questions. These FCC rulings didn't happen overnight. They'd been in the works since last year. Yet in February, one poll showed more than 70 percent of Americans had heard "nothing at all" about the proposals. Why didn't the public know more? In part, the FCC didn't do a lot to publicize the changes. But in truth, the media did an even worse job of telling people about them.

A scan of news transcripts on Lexis/Nexis from January to May shows CBS News did four stories on the proposed changes, ABC did three, and NBC none. And even The New York Times, which did extensive coverage the day after the ruling, did little leading up to the vote. Its coverage - 13 stories between January and the end of May - was mostly in the business section. Only one story made the front page. If you think 13 stories is extensive coverage, consider that that's less than three stories a month and, 10 fewer stories than the paper did on reality television during the same period.

Most newspapers offered little coverage when the changes were still being discussed - and when the public still could have contacted the FCC about them.

There are, of course, a lot of possible reasons for the lack of coverage. The news media aren't good at covering "issues." And other stories - the war in Iraq, tax cuts, Laci Peterson - pushed the FCC story out of the mix. But there are other, less sanguine interpretations.

Whether or not you agree with the FCC changes, it is at least curious that many of the media companies that had an interest in changing the rules - such as The New York Times Co., Gannett, and Tribune Co., which lobbied for the changes - chose to cover the story sparingly, if at all. At the only official FCC public hearing on the issue, TV network executives filled the room to speak out on the changes the commission was considering. Yet, strangely, there wasn't a single network news camera there.

In their lack of coverage, the country's news media showed why bigger media companies might not be such a good thing. In the end, it's the news media that define our reality outside our immediate experience. If they are shaping it for their own benefit at the expense of informing their readers, viewers and listeners, then journalism and the American public have a lot more serious concerns than Jayson Blair.

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