Big Media and the FCC Roadshow: Controlling the Message Online and Off

(This is a guest blog from the Prometheus Radio Project, a long-time ally and friend in media justice).

The FCC is coming to Silicon Valley. The famously old-school agency will make an unlikely visit to the high tech mecca, asking if "legacy media" (radio, television, and newspapers) even matter in the Internet age. More specifically, the FCC will ask an expert panel whether we still need the media ownership rules designed to protect democracy by preventing media monopolies and consolidation.

Gathering at Stanford University on Friday, May 21, media execs will claim that in the age of blogging and Twitter, we have millions of news sources to choose from. In this utopia of media diversity, everyone is a journalist and every point of view can be heard. According to big media, if the FCC wants to help out, they should forget about local ownership limits and just finish the job of deregulation.

To poke a hole in this argument, you don't have to look farther than the FCC's latest media ownership workshop, held in Tampa, Florida on April 20. Without any advance coverage from commercial broadcasters or daily newspapers, the turnout was modest. (Most of the 40 or so present learned about the event on local community radio stations.) But those who did show up loudly opposed media consolidation, lining up for nearly two hours of impassioned public comment after the media bigwig panel ended.

The topic in Tampa was the FCC's ban on cross-ownership, which prevents one company from owning the major newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market. In a situation that pre-dates the cross-ownership ban, Media General owns both the Tampa Tribune and the WFLA television station, making Tampa a good place to consider the impact of cross-ownership on local news. The verdict in Tampa? Cross-ownership hasn't saved local news. Those from the public who addressed cross-ownership were opposed, unanimously, to lifting the ban.

But you wouldn't know it from reading the news. Although several organizations and journalists covered the FCC event, it was the Tampa Tribune's version that was reproduced all over the Internet. The reporter devoted two full paragraphs to the views of his own boss, Media General Florida president John Schueler. The article ignored the overwhelming opposition to cross-ownership, underreported the number of those who came to speak, and concluded that the issue is no longer volatile.

Even more sinister is the company's enforcement of its version of events by removing the only reader comment posted to the article. Tampa resident Beth Bell, who criticized the misleading coverage of the event she had attended, found her comment deleted without explanation.

Despite its shortcomings, the Tampa Tribune article had wide circulation locally and nationally, allowing Media General to control the message on media ownership: there's nothing to see here, and no one cares.

The Tampa Tribune's online influence shouldn't surprise us. A recent report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that only 14% of the sites not owned by legacy media produce mostly original reporting rather than commentary. Moreover, 80% of the traffic to news sites is concentrated at the top 7% of those sites, the vast majority of which are tied to legacy media.

In other words, the same companies that dominate offline media dominate online media. That's one reason to tell the FCC that media ownership still matters in the Internet age. But of course, those most impacted by the quality of "legacy" media aren't in Silicon Valley, they are in rural America, Indian Country and in other areas without broadband access. These voices might not be heard in a tech-focused workshop on the Stanford campus.

But if you are in the Bay Area this week, you can speak to the FCC directly. The workshop is at Stanford University's Dinkelspiel Auditorium on Friday May 21. The workshop runs from 10am to 5pm, with public comment at 11:45am - 1:00pm and 3:30pm - 5:00pm

Brandy Doyle is a Regulatory Policy Associate with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization that builds and supports low power community radio stations.