Sociologist Eric Klinenberg likes to tell the story of the 2002 North Dakota train derailment that sent 240,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia into a vapor plume that floated over Minot. An effort to warn the population by radio failed because all six radio stations were owned by one gargantuan conglomerate, Clear Channel, which had stripped them of local personnel and local operations in favor of automated programming.
“Unfortunately, there was no one either in the studio of any of the six commercial radio stations that Clear Channel owns there, but also no one answering the phone, no one able to issue an alert,” Klinenberg told radio host Amy Goodman. “It used to be the case that there was no company that could own more than 40 stations in the country. Now, Clear Channel owns 1,200, and others own hundreds. They have replaced live local talent, deejays, talk show hosts, programmers, with automated programming, oftentimes faked to sound like it’s local, even though it’s programmed in a remote studio thousands of miles away. That night in Minot, North Dakota, there was no one in any of those six stations. They were all consolidated into two offices, and the result is that when the Emergency Alert System failed, there was no way to get the word out.”
Hundreds of people were treated for health problems, and one person died.
It’s the most dramatic incident yet that shows how media consolidation is a local story. To add a fillip to the story, consider this: Last week Legacy Communications Corporation, which already has radio stations in Idaho, Nevada, Utah and California, exercised an option to purchase radio station KHWK in Tonopah.
“But surely the availability of multiple sources of information is a force in the well being of any local society,” said Columbia University media scholar Todd Gitlin in an interview with the News and Review.
Yet during the approach to a Dec. 18 Federal Communications Commission vote on further media consolidation, no local news entities in Nevada told the public what was at stake for the state’s residents in that vote and other consolidation items before the commission.
The FCC on that date lifted limits on media ownership in the largest 20 cities, clearing the way for Gannett Company, Inc., Rupert Murdoch, and others to buy newspapers and TV stations across town from each other in the same communities. Also approved was an array of waivers in smaller markets, including for Gannett in Phoenix. Gannett is the owner of the Reno Gazette-Journal. What happens in large markets frequently comes before the commission in smaller markets as well.
The day of the vote, Les Smith of Sierra Nevada Community Access Television in Reno said in an emailed message to people around the Truckee Meadows, “If the regulation passes today, major media conglomerates across the country will be able to buy up struggling independent stations at the local level, thus putting an end to the democratic tradition of independent voices serving the community.”
In the weeks approaching the FCC vote, there was an enormous groundswell of grassroots organizing against the change. Critics of the move—including some Nevadans—used the internet to inform and make contact with others of like mind. “Rule changes such as the one [FCC Chair Kevin] Martin is proposing are designed to further consolidate media ownership into the hands of the powerful few,” said a post on a Gazette-Journal reader forum in September, which is closer than the newspaper itself came to covering the story.
It’s not that Gazette-Journal editors considered the story un-newsworthy. They did, after all, carry at least a wire story after the FCC vote (“FCC Chief Defends Changes in Media Ownership Rules While Others Warn of Wave of Mergers”). That merely begs the question of why coverage was not provided before the vote. RGJ Executive editor Beryl Love could not be reached for comment.
According to an FCC disclosure, the Gazette-Journal’s parent corporation lobbyists Craig Dubow and Richard Wiley—a former FCC chair—met personally with FCC chair Martin 11 days before the agency’s vote on the ownership rules. Besides the cross-ownership rules, Gannett also had a waiver affecting its ownership of both the Arizona Republic and a Phoenix television station on the FCC’s agenda.
There were those who were watching to see if various media entities would transcend their ownership to inform their readers. At OpEdNews.com, Ed Tubbs reported on Gannett newspapers: “I searched the Palm Springs Desert Sun and the Press Enterprise for some discussion, even a passing hint concerning the subject matter of the hearings: nada. Nothing in the Reno Gazette Journal either.”
All over the nation, local newspapers and television stations suppressed news of the FCC controversy, concealing from their readers the local implications of the vote. In this region, the Reno Gazette-Journal and every Reno television station with a news department ignored the story.
Besides being a station subject to acquisition, KRNV Television in Reno has sometimes had synergy arrangements with the Reno Gazette-Journal. KRNV interim news director Kirk Frosdick referred questions about why the FCC story was not covered to the station’s general manager Mary Beth Farrell. However, the general manager is not involved in story selection.
Do media entities have a responsibility to cover stories even when they have a conflict of interest? At least one media scholar believes so.
“Well, of course they have that responsibility,” Gitlin said. “They have the responsibility to cover any matter that’s of moment to the community. But, in general, newspapers do a very bad job—and for that matter, local television and radio, as well—do a terrible job of covering matters of media concentration because they have a stake in public ignorance and there’s no motive for them to rise above their peculiar interests.”
While the FCC drove single-mindedly toward its Dec. 18 vote, some members of Congress were involved in legislation to overturn or prevent any such vote by the commissioners. But Senate Democratic floor leader Harry Reid of Nevada, for some reason, believed the FCC in the end would not vote to lift cross ownership limits. “I don’t think so, I don’t think that’s true,” Reid said on Nov. 20. “No, I think what they’re going to do—what I have heard through the grapevine—is that they’re going to give some relief to the Chicago Tribune deal, but I think that’s about as far as they’re going to go now.”
In fact, the FCC did grant a Tribune waiver, but also approved lifting the limits on cross-town ownership.
The Bush administration fired a shot across the bow of Congress on Dec. 4 when Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez wrote Reid and other congressional leaders opposing any effort to block the FCC’s plans “or any other attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means.”
Reid, however, may not be all that reluctant to allow the FCC’s concentrations of ownership.
“I believe that there are some markets where you can do the newspaper … going to electronic media, but I think those should be on a case by case basis,” Reid said. “I don’t think you can do it [with] just a blank check to all of them.”
But Reid also said he opposed the huge conglomerations in radio, such as Clear Channel, and lamented the loss of the “fairness” doctrine, which allowed federal regulators to decide broadcasting content and is seen by liberals as a way to crack down on right wing broadcasters. (The doctrine was eliminated in 1984-85 by a combination of Supreme Court rulings and FCC action. Legislation to reimpose it was vetoed by President Reagan.)
Some media activists say the fairness doctrine and media concentration are separate issues and that critics of right wing radio try to hitch a ride on media consolidation concern.
Four days after the FCC vote, eight journalism deans from schools around the nation sent a statement to the New York Times calling on local reporters to give up their aversion to buck employers: “But our profession needs to cast its reluctance to discuss broadcast regulation aside, and to let its voice be heard, loud and clear—on behalf of local reporting.”