Despite intense opposition based on “as much passion and emotion as reason,” a lawyer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) argued that the recent decision to relax the 32-year-old ban on joint ownership of media outlets would improve news coverage through the combination of resources at the Silha Fall Forum Oct. 23, 2008.
Rosemary Harold, legal adviser to FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, defended the Commission’s controversial move in front of a skeptical audience of professors and students attending the forum at the University of Minnesota’s Murphy Hall Conference Center.
Harold said the advent of the Internet and increasingly harsh economic conditions for newspapers have combined to render the FCC’s ban on joint ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market impractical in light of the original goal of preserving independent news judgment. “When the justification for the ban is the gone, the ban should also be gone,” Harold said.
The new rules allow joint ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the 20 largest markets as long as the broadcast station is not one of the top four stations in the market.
Harold said the high-profile decision generated more than 166,000 comments from individuals and groups. The FCC held multiple congressional and public hearings before changing the rules. (See “FCC Changes Cross-Ownership Rules amid Intense Criticism” in the Winter 2008 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
“People care passionately about the media,” Harold said. “Everybody consumes it, so everybody has an opinion about how it’s working.”
She said that, although the attention shows that people care about the future of quality news media, “research data supports the idea that news programming can benefit from larger corporations.”
Harold, a former reporter and attorney who was previously Deputy Chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, provided an extensive history of the rules regarding media consolidation to contextualize the recent changes. She cited three policy goals behind the Commission’s ownership limits: localism, diversity, and competition. She said the Commission had thoroughly researched the implications of the new rule, and that the change provided adequate protection for these policies.
Although she agreed that the public tends to benefit from having multiple independent sources of news, Harold said the rule change allowing larger media companies to combine their assets will help preserve quality journalism. She said the growing economic difficulties facing mainstream media, especially newspapers, were critical to the Commission’s final decision.
“Good journalism doesn’t usually just happen. Someone gets paid,” Harold said. “I want those opportunities to be there for folks who are in school now, and I want those jobs to be there for those working in the field, wondering if they can hang on.”
Harold also noted that the new regulations are currently being tested in the courts, and could potentially wind up before the Supreme Court of the United States. “It will be interesting to see if the Commission can justify its action,” Harold said.
The Silha Center is based at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Silha Center activities are made possible by a generous endowment from the late Otto Silha and his wife, Helen.
– Jacob Parsley
Silha Research Assistant