By Miriam Raftery
“If we don't find a way to save investigative journalism, our democracy will not only suffer, it will die." - Jeanne Brown, vice president, San Diego League of Women Voters
“The good news is the rise of online, nonprofit journalism organizations like East County Magazine.” – J.W. August, managing editor, Channel 10 News
“We believe the Internet has broad ability to improve democracy.” –Jon Bartholomew, associate director of media reform, Common Cause
April 1, 2009 (San Diego)—The demise of major newspapers and consolidation of broadcast media threatens the future of a free press and puts the public’s right to know at risk, speakers warned at a League of Women Voters luncheon held in San Diego on March 19th.
Jeanne Brown, vice president of the San Diego League of Women Voters, noted that an informed electorate is vital to the LWV’s mission to educate voters. She quoted Thomas Jefferson, who once observed that “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with our government.”
Brown emphasized, “We need the media to inform us.”
Until recently, most cities in America had more than one newspaper publishing dissenting views, she observed. But today, media consolidation allowed under federal rule changes, competition from Internet, cable and satellite TV, talk radio and a weak economy have led to a string of major newspaper closures. Others are slashing budgets and cutting back on investigative reporting. Some survivors are looking after advertiser interests at the expense of the public interest, speakers suggested.
Speakers voiced concern that sales of San Diego’s only major newspaper to Platinum Equity, a private equity firm, could result in a reduced commitment to journalism or even closure of the newspaper. (A recent article in Voice of San Diego speculated that the buyer may be more interested in acquiring the Union Tribune’s Mission Valley real estate than its newspaper operations)
“This takeover of the Union-Tribune has me worried because the company that took it over has no experience in these things,” Joe August, managing director at KGTV Channel 10 News, said, noting that only newspapers have traditionally had the large budgets to fund extended investigative reporting. “I believe in investigative journalism. It’s heart and soul of what I do. But that’s under attack now.”
Corporate takeovers of newspapers such as the Union-Tribune can have dire consequences. “When corporations are only interested in the bottom line, they’re going to cut investigative journalism,” he said, adding that reporters are pressured to cover more for less.. “The good news is the rise of online, nonprofit journalism organizations like East County Magazine.”
Existing media outlets are facing pressure to post news online quickly amid “a revolution called the Internet,” August observed.
To survive, local media outlets need to boost emphasis on local news, he believes, rather than hyping the latest Brittany Spears exploits. “People like intelligent reporting. They don’t like dumb stuff,” he said, citing results of a survey of viewers conducted by Channel 10. “We won’t do any more features on cute ducks.” To help fill that need, Channel 10 plans to launch a beat system where each reporter will have an area of expertise.
Jon Bartholomew, associate director of media reform issues for Common Cause flew in from Maine to address the group. It proved to be his last appearance here on behalf of Common Cause, which announced lay-offs including Bartholomew’s position the next day, due to budget cuts.) Bartholomew emphasized the need for investigative reporting to investigate actions of public officials and assure an informed electorate. “The press lets people know when we should be fomenting revolution,” he quipped, noting that it was the press that played a key role in inciting colonists to start the American Revolution.
“We believe the Internet has broad ability to improve democracy,” he said. Besides access through traditional media, politicians can utilize the Internet to reach voters and individual citizens can start their own blogs.
Bartholomew also foresees a key role for nonprofit online media, and predicted that ultimately nonprofits could be funding investigative journalism through philanthropic sources or donations from the public and selling stories to broadcast media.
Two barriers impede access to information on the Internet. One is broadband access. The Obama administration aims to spend $7.2 million for broadband infrastructure to bring high-speed Internet access to rural areas and low-income citizens.
The second issue is net neutrality. “Once on the Internet, all users should be able to go to all sites and use them equally,” Bartholomew explained. “But there’s not much to stop a Cox or Verizon from making their sites and services get more access.” For example, a broadband provider that also owns a newspaper might block access to classifieds on Craig’s List. Verizon drew criticism recently for blocking text messages sent by a pro-choice organization to its members. Bi g business has spread myths about Net Neutrality, claiming it would regulate the Internet, the Common Cause spokesman noted. Just as the First Amendment preserves rights to freedom of the press, Net Neutrality would protect Internet users from control of the Internet by powerful special interests.
“Groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters cannot pay extra to get on a faster service,” Bartholomew said. “The new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chair is a big net neutrality supporter,” he added. “We hope to see the FCC pass net neutrality rules, but it may need help from Congress.”
He favors requiring broadcasters that use the public airways to dedicate more time to local news including local politics. “TV viewers are seven times more likely to see a political ad than actual news about a local politician, "he said."
San Diego has followed the national trend of cutting out local voices in favor of national syndicated programming to save money, but that raises serious questions about how quickly the public would be served during an emergency, such as a wildfire.
“The more disconnected ownership of media is to the community, the more disastrous the result,” Bartholomew said, adding that the quality of local news is declining with consolidation. He cited a now-infamous example. In North Dakota, a train wreck released poison gas. Clear Channel owned all six stations, which were broadcast out of state. Local and state emergency authorities tried to reach broadcasters to air warnings to the public, but were unable to contact them. “The result was one death and more than 1,000 injuries,” Bartholomew observed. (Editor's note: Please see comment submitted by Clear Channel on this incident, posted in the comments section below. According to Clear Channel, the lack of notification in the North Dakota poison gas tragedy was due to local broadcasters' failure to install emergency equipment.)
Clear Channel now owns over 900 stations nationwide. The near-monopoly in some markets also raises the specter of media bias, since Clear Channel is owned by an investment group of Mitt Romney, former Republican presidential candidate. Clear Channel has been aggressively taking liberal programming off the airways, often replacing it with sports talk radio that has often led to decreased listenership, calling into question whether the motive was a political agenda rather than a profit motive. In either case, the result has been less diversity on the airwaves; 90% of talk radio in America is conservative in format.
Despite this scenario, Bartholomew opposes restoration of the Fairness Doctrine, which he said was ineffective. Instead, he hopes the FCC will collect data on barriers preventing women and minorities from owning more media outlets. “The greatest barrier is access to capital,” he noted. A possible solution could be federal grants to diversify ownership. Breaking up media monopolies is another solution on the horizon.
Common Cause also wants the Obama administration to require broadcasters using the public airways to meet stricter standards for reflecting the public interest in exchange for the free licenses that they obtain. Some have claimed broadcasting sports games fulfill public interest obligations, for example. The federal government might require broadcast media owners to devote a certain amount of air time for covering civic and election issues, such as by hosting debates. “This is what right-wing talking heads like Limbaugh call `censorship’,” he said, “but existing rules have censored the views of thousands already.”
August also reported on his station’s participation in Sunshine Week, in which journalists statewide attempted to access information that should be available through public agencies. “California was 21st or 22nd,” he said. “It’s amazing what you’re entitled to that they won’t give you. I’m really embarrassed for our state.”
He praised the Internet for giving ordinary citizens the ability to access information directly. “You don’t need media to filter information. You can go right to our sources,” the veteran news director concluded.