Letter to Senate Commerce Committee Regarding S. 1046

The Honorable John McCain
United States Senate
241 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510-0303
June 16, 2003

Dear Senator McCain:

The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to markup S. 1046 which will prevent a media entity from owning or controlling television stations whose aggregate national audience reach exceeds 35 percent. In effect this legislation would roll back the recent action by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase the so-called national audience “cap” to 45%. On behalf of the nearly 500,000 media employees represented by the 12 national news and entertainment unions affiliated to our organization, we strongly endorse this legislation and urge your support of it.

In today’s already highly concentrated media marketplace, robust competition and ownership diversity are essential to the economic health and viability of the media and entertainment sectors. In the news and information business, competition and diversity help preserve localism in news coverage, enhance the quality and comprehensiveness of news content, assure a multiplicity of voices from a variety of independent sources and reduce the risk that news will be censored or slanted by a few controlling interests. In the entertainment sector, they stimulate the kinds of creativity and variety in programming that the American public has come to expect but that has significantly diminished since the FCC repealed the Financial Interest and Syndication Rule in 1993.

Most importantly, competition and diversity are fundamental to both assuring citizen access to information and expanding the public’s informed participation in our democracy. Yet the Commission’s recent deregulation of media ownership on an unprecedented scale runs the risk of diminishing this participation while threatening your constituents’ first amendment right to what the Supreme Court has described as the “uninhibited marketplace of ideas.”

By generally limiting media concentration in television through a lower cap, S. 1046 is an important first step to restoring a measure of balance to the media marketplace that will: advance ownership diversity; protect the independence of non-network owned stations; and promote localism by limiting the programming dictates and economic leverage of the media giants.

But more is needed. It is our understanding that Senator Dorgan will offer an amendment to restore the ban on newspaper broadcast cross-ownership. We strongly urge your support for his proposal.

When the cross-ownership rule was adopted by the FCC in 1975, the Commission concluded that it is “unrealistic to expect true diversity from a commonly owned station-newspaper combination.” This is as true today as it was over two decades ago.

At that time, three-quarters of all dailies were owned by local families. Today, most cities and towns have only one newspaper and most of the nation’s 1,500 dailies are owned by national chains. Gannett now owns one out of every seven newspapers sold in the U.S. Along with Knight Ridder and the Tribune Co. they account for one-quarter of all daily newspaper circulation. In local broadcasting, behind today’s seeming variety of television choices are in reality five giants: Disney (which owns ABC), Viacom (CBS and United Paramount Network), AOL-Time Warner (the WB), News Corporation (Fox), and General Electric (NBC).

The FCC’s elimination of the cross-ownership ban will set off a feeding frenzy of acquisitions among these behemoths that over time is likely to lead to a contraction from four (one paper, three TV) to three in the number of separately-owned local news media outlets in most media markets. Co-owned newspaper and broadcast stations will merge news operations-as they have where these combinations already operate under FCC waivers or grandfather arrangements-thus eliminating a separate, distinct, and independent voice. The result: According to The Project for Excellence in Journalism growing consolidation in the news business has led to a serious decline in the quality and quantity of local news as distant corporate media executives demand cuts in news budgets to boost profits.

Restoration of the newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership rule is vital to preserving what remains of independent, local voices in news and information reporting. It compliments the underlying purpose of S. 1046 by further constricting the growth of media monopolies. Should economic circumstances require it, the previous cross-ownership rule had allowed the FCC to grant waivers based on local market conditions. This was and is an appropriate mechanism to deal with markets in which cross-ownership might serve the public interest by saving a failing newspaper or broadcast station.

In our democratic society, media ownership matters. It matters because ultimately it is the deciding factor that determines what your constituents have access to in news, entertainment and information. Most importantly, it matters to our democracy because an informed public is the bedrock of our free and open society.

Thank you for your consideration of our views.

Sincerely,

Paul E. Almeida
President

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