BY IAN DONNIS
IN SOME RESPECTS, the media landscape in Rhode Island — famously dubbed by former ProJo scribe Elliot Jaspin as a reporter’s theme park — may seem rich and varied. Experienced pros like Jack White, Jim Taricani, and Jim Hummel lend enhanced stature to the three local television affiliates. The competing radio talk-show hosts — Steve Kass, John DePetro, Dan Yorke (disclosure: I’m a weekly guest on his show), and Arlene Violet — are intelligent, knowledgeable, and they often discuss serious topics. Local broadcasting was considerably enhanced a few years ago with the addition of public radio station WRNI-AM. Weekly papers and smaller dailies focus on different corners of the state. There’s the Internet, of course. And the Providence Journal, which has a venerable journalistic tradition and remains one of the better papers of its size in the country, still occupies the top of the heap.
Seen another way, however, Rhode Island is as gripped by media consolidation as many other places — and probably even more so because of the state’s tiny size.
Rhode Islanders reflexively turn to WJAR-TV (Channel 10), the state’s first television station and a subsidiary of NBC, which is owned by General Electric, a top superpower among the corporate elite. Atlanta-based Cox Communications has a virtual cable TV monopoly, and Verizon towers over telephone services. Radio colossus Clear Channel owns more than 1200 stations, four of them in the Ocean State, including WHJY-FM and WHJJ-AM. (Citadel, another large radio player, owns a relatively paltry 205 stations, including WPRO-AM.) Three of the larger small dailies in the region, the Times in Pawtucket, the Call in Woonsocket, and the Herald News in Fall River, Massachusetts, are owned by the Journal Register Company of New Jersey, which exemplifies a slimmed-down approach to journalism. And Belo, whose holdings include 19 television stations — reaching about 14 percent of television households in the US — and four daily newspapers, has been the guiding force behind Rhode Island’s dominant daily since buying the ProJo in 1997.
Although an out-of-town corporation will never match a local family’s commitment in pouring resources into a newspaper, the Journal remains a pretty good paper in many ways (even with the acrimony of an ongoing dispute between management and the Providence Newspaper Guild, which has been working without a contract since early 2000). The paper’s political coverage is the most comprehensive in Rhode Island; the ProJo’s statewide sweep, even with the closing of a handful of bureaus over the last decade, is unrivaled; and even with a 2001 buyout and numerous other staff departures, the Journal boasts an impressive roster of journalistic talent, including the four-person investigative team.
Still, even though Belo, as demonstrated by its ownership of the Dallas Morning News and the ProJo, knows how to run quality newspapers, it has spearheaded the kind of dubious budgetary moves — closing the Newport bureau in January 2002, for example, and introducing charges (minimum $20.72) for engagement and celebratory announcements — typical of bottom-line thinking. It’s this kind of number crunching approach, combined with the Journal’s outsized local influence, which would likely characterize a Belo-owned television station in Rhode Island. It’s worth remembering, after all, that Belo is primarily a broadcaster — a business marked by low overhead and high profits.
Guild administrator Tim Schick expects Belo, which has exhibited a tendency to group its properties in Dallas, Seattle-Tacoma, and Phoenix, to be very interested in buying a Rhode Island TV station. And while some media companies emphasize sharing newsgathering assets in markets where they own a newspaper and television station, Schick believes that Belo — because of the difficulty in matching the varying approaches of print and broadcast reporting — is far more interested in exploiting the business possibilities.
"It would give them a stronger lock on the advertising market, because they could sell TV and print in combination," he says. "If I was a businessman in the area, that’s what I would be concerned about." Even if Belo bought WLNE-TV (Channel 6) — which happens to be for sale — it might be able to upgrade the station’s perennial third-place status through cheaper commercial rates in the short term. "But it the long term, it would diminish competition and drive up prices," Schick says, "because the other TV stations, regardless of who owns them, would not be able to compete with the marketing power of a newspaper-TV station combination."
WLNE-TV seems like the most inviting target for Belo in the short term. The station’s corporate parent, California-based Freedom Communications, the owner of the Orange County Register and a string of other media properties, is for sale, and even if a larger company, like Gannett, bought it, Belo still might be able to acquire Channel 6 in a swap. There’s also some chatter that Belo CEO Decherd has his eye on WPRI (Channel 12), which has turned over a few times in recent years and is currently owned by LIN TV Corporation. And although General Electric seems unlikely to ditch a traditional market leader like WJAR (which currently enjoys a cross-promotional relationship with the Journal), few things can be conclusively ruled out when it comes to the upcoming media feeding frenzy.
Cross-ownership already exists in a handful of US cities, including Dallas, where Belo’s ownership of the Dallas Morning News and WFAA-TV (Channel 8), an ABC affiliate, predated the FCC’s adoption of the cross-ownership rule. Both have a long history of being very solid journalistic enterprises, vigorously competing with each other for stories, according to Eric Celeste, who writes about media for the Dallas Observer. But in a situation that became increasingly common at many publicly held media companies in the ’90s, Decherd has become obsessed with Belo’s stock price, Celeste says, and, "They make decisions based on what is best for the bottom line, not necessarily journalistically." As a result, Channel 8, which traditionally focused on serious reporting, has increasingly adopted more of the fluff typical of television news.
Although Morning News reporters are not typically featured on WFAA, the two entities "do tons of cross-promotional stuff," Celeste says. "Editors at the Morning News talk daily with editors and reporters at Channel 8," and Belo promotes two-way advertising buys with the television station and newspaper. Meanwhile, Morning News reporters frequently turn up, on company orders, on Belo’s Texas Cable News (TXCN). As far as reporters at Channel 8 and the Morning News, who have previously been accustomed to competing with each other, "They don’t pretend that that kind of convergence is anything other than bothersome," Celeste says.
As the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, H. Philip West Jr. often has cause to be thankful for the ProJo’s brand of watchdog reporting at the State House. Still, it’s little surprise that a reformer like West is predisposed to see Belo’s potential acquisition of a Rhode Island television station as anything other than a slippery development.
"Suppose there was a major issue coming down about federal legislation involving free air time [for political candidates], which the National Association of Broadcasters sees as anathema, or some other significant campaign finance reform . . . where the interests of television might be adversely affected, but print would not be affected," West says. "Suppose the broadcast side of Belo says, ‘We don’t want to give any oxygen to this,’ and they made an effort to shut down editorials and possibly news stories?" Such a rhetorical question, as West notes, is hardly academic.
Indeed, both the Dallas Morning News and Providence Journal, which operate as very powerful institutions in their respective communities, not uncommonly exempt themselves from the kind of coverage to which they, rightly, subject other public and private entities. Since its acquisition by Belo, the ProJo has displayed a growing aversion to self-scrutiny in any number of stories — from addled coverage of Belo’s dubious $37.5 million investment in the failed :CueCat computer peripheral to not reporting a recent National Labor Relations Board decision against the Journal.
Similarly, when Belo bought a minority share in the Dallas Mavericks and the American Airlines Center in 1999 — and the Morning News did a less than thorough job in reporting the story — three disgruntled City Hall reporters wrote in a memo, "The new relationship between Belo and the Mavericks, and the paper’s handling of the story, in particular, raise troubling questions for all of us in the newsroom. We believe that corporate citizenship should not come at the expense of the newspaper’s editorial integrity."
This kind of trend doesn’t bode well, to say the least, when it comes to the heightened conflicts that would be presented by Belo’s ownership of a TV station in Rhode Island.
PEOPLE LIKE Kiersten Marek, a Cranston social worker who pens an online web log, or blog, called Kmareka.com (http://kmareka.com/index.html) — "a quarterly of literature, politics, finance & more" — are helping to fulfill the democratic promise of the Internet. In February, for example, when she considered the Providence Journal tardy in reporting the employment history of Cranston finance director Jerome Baron, who came from a scandal-tinged administration in Bridgeport, Connecticut, she used her blog to raise questions about Mayor Stephen Laffey’s commitment to reform. It was almost two weeks later before the ProJo published a February 19 story, headlined, "Baron seen untouched by Bridgeport scandal."
Like a lot of Web diarists, Marek launched her blog as a way of having more of a voice in her community. "I thought this would be a good way to enter the political fray and offer another perspective," she says. "I think it’s definitely offering a counterpoint or a counterattack to the centralizing of the media. I’m trying to offer not just my voice, but other voices that are not being heard." After starting the blog about a year ago, Marek has about 300 subscribers, and a Channel 10 reporter came to interview her about one of her postings during Cranston’s financial crisis. The situation showed, she says, how even a little blog "can have a huge influence" if other media pick up some of the content.
Indeed, supporters of media deregulation point to the Internet and other forms of new technology in contending that existing restrictions are unnecessary. FCC Chairman Michael Powell, for example, in an April 28 address to the Newspaper Association of America’s national convention, waxed about the possibilities of change: "As I have said, in the old world governments are central and monopolists are central. The most important thing technology is doing is placing consumers and citizens more squarely in the driver’s seat of choosing and controlling their personal communications space. This is having profound implications for how consumers communicate, how they are informed, and how they must be reached by the purveyors of news and information like yourselves."
This rosy outlook, however, seems to have little connection to reality. Blogs like Marek’s are worthwhile, but they attract barely a tiny fraction of the audience of WJAR or the readership of the Journal. Big media companies operate the most popular Web sites, and although the Internet makes available a wealth of information about media deregulation and other esoteric topics, most people get most of their information from television. In an age of unfettered consolidation, it’s hard to see how typical media consumers will offer meaningful leverage against the handful of corporate giants — Disney, General Electric, Viacom, Fox, and AOL — that own most of the media.
Meanwhile, activists like Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, warn that the incipient move to broadband — high-speed Internet connections — will fundamentally alter the architecture of the Internet, doing away with the "open access" principle that has made the ’net an accessible and somewhat democratic place.
As a primer on the center’s site (www.democraticmedia.org) puts it, "Without open access safeguards there is a tremendous potential for large Internet service providers (ISPs), such as AOL-Time Warner or Verizon, to control the flow of information. For example, without a non-discrimination rule, there is nothing to stop these large ISPs from providing their own first-class treatment and the highest download speeds, while nonaffiliated content would be forced into the online "economy" (or even slower) class. For the many groups that will not be able to afford the ISPs’ prices for first-class treatment (including nonprofit groups, independent artists, and others), this likely would severely limit their Web presence. For without open access, the rules of Internet commerce and communications will be determined by the telecom giants, rather than the public."
Marek, who was unfamiliar with the June 2 FCC vote before receiving a recent mailing from the liberal group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, is alarmed by the prospect of still more consolidation. "If I wanted to live in a country where the media was controlled by the political powers, I would live in the Soviet Union," she says. "I thought that was the whole point of the First Amendment and a free press — people have more of an opportunity to express dissent and be heard." As it is, "I think there is already a lot of manipulation of the media by corporations and by people who are perceived as having financial power in our country. I really wish there were more regulations that tried to limit that."
Instead, the FCC — the regulatory agency that is supposed to promote the public interest — is about to go in exactly the opposite direction. The media — which should help inform people about the most important issues of the day — have been largely complicit.
The situation harkens back to a truism described by Ben Bagdikian in the preface to The Media Monopoly. Working as a young reporter at the Providence Journal, he discovered that the media — which are supposed to signal "weakness within our social order" — instinctively backed the status quo, and even reactionary elements, when it came to reporting on the Palmer raids, the arrest of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the witch hunts of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The experience, which reoccurred during his reporting career, taught Bagdikian that, "The news media are not monolithic. They are not frozen in a permanent set of standards. But they suffer from built-in biases that protect corporate power and consequently weaken the public’s ability to understand forces that create the American scene."
Maybe this explains how, in its March 16 editorial in favor of deregulation, the ProJo could assert, "Often, independent newspapers and television stations in smaller markets lack financial and other resources to provide high-quality local coverage." Sure, this might be true to an extent. But there was once an independently owned, smaller market newspaper that made out pretty well. Rather than lacking sufficient resources to pursue its journalistic mission, the paper’s publisher made sure that it had more than enough. The publisher was Michael Metcalf, and the paper was the Providence Journal.
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com
Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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