The dangers of media consolidation (with Bill Moyers video)

10 Dec

Prompted by a question from a friend (via facebook), a blurb about an interesting Billy Moyers interview with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The focus of the interview is a pending move by the Federal Communications Commission (the US agency that regulates TV and radio) to eliminate a rule that prevents any one company from owning a radio station, a tv station and a newspaper in the same media market. It’s to preserve a variety of voices for the common citizenry to ingest.

In the big picture, Moyers points out that just six companies control the majority of the news outlets in the States. Thirty years ago there were 50. That’s a huge risk to accept, when it comes to expectations of corporate differentiation of opinion.

What my friend Dave’s query centred on was the rise of the internet and the potential for a lessening of the impact of media consolidation because of that growth. It’s an important consideration but it’s not a miracle cure. The internet is certainly a big x-factor – and I wonder if the focus on the old way of dividing media is a bit too akin to Don Quixote because of how the internet has changed the way we consume the news – but nonetheless, we must remember that although the barriers to accessing news on a global scale have been eliminated by the internet, there must be an ability to access local news. Local news must also be diverse. As it stands, the FCC’s limitation on local ownership safeguards against communities losing a diversity of voices and opinions; there probably *is* a better way to do this, but right now, this is all there is.

The internet is great, but we must remember that most people still go to the major news sources when they are online anyway. Local news still needs a forum and most people still hear about most of their news through local tv and radio. The news, whether it is about your local council or it’s discussing national health care policy, is a public trust that is a core item in a healthy democracy. Healthy democracies can only exist if citizens can access a variety of news. There are always going to filters and biases in any news outlet’s reporting, but the key is to have as many different filters as possible.

Back in May, the New York Times’ Brian Stelter highlighted another worrisome trend in American media – television stations in small markets are entering into ‘shared services agreements’ and the ‘local marketing agreements.’ These two types of contracts allow for supposedly competing stations to share editorial staffs and advertising sales department. The result, predictably, is frighteningly similar newscasts that undermine our understanding of the purpose of having separate newscasts. Stelter reported on a conversation with Perry Sook, chairman and chief executive of Nexstar, the company that owns KLST, CBS affiliate in San Angelo, Tx. (N.B. This is a news story that Moyers mentions in his discussion with Sanders)

Without the agreement, he said, KSAN would have no local news at all, because it would not be profitable.

Together, the two stations employ about 35 people. They jointly decide what news stories to cover.

“I don’t mean for this to be a criticism, but it really cuts down on competition,” said Ty Meighan, a former reporter for The San Angelo Standard-Times who is now a spokesman for the city. “Competition makes the media better.”

KLST and KSAN have the only local television news in town. The Fox station in town, KIDY, rebroadcasts the news from San Antonio, a four-hour drive away. On the bottom of the screen, headlines from local newspapers scroll by, the product of another kind of a shared services agreement — this time with the E.W. Scripps Company, the owner of the papers.

DuJuan McCoy, the owner of KIDY, said he believed such arrangements were necessary in small markets. It can cost up to $1 million to run a TV news operation in a market the size of San Angelo’s. “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to generate enough revenue to justify the expense for a locally produced newscast,” he said.

Really, what’s the point, though. These are news broadcasts that have been stripped of their individuality; the news anchors essential read the same script, just in different studios. It’s a very, very distressing situation.

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