WITH JORDANNA THIGPEN
Photo by Jack
By Jordanna Thigpen
April 28, 2006
What does it mean to be independent? In an age of media consolidation,
it is increasingly important. Is it already too late for our democracy?
MediaNews, a Denver outfit, is set to acquire the San Jose Mercury
News and the Contra Costa Times from McClatchy Co. Trouble is
brewing for the union members at the Mercury News, where contracts
expire on June 30. It is in MediaNews' best interest to keep things
going smoothly during this important transition, but capital will
be tight as it always is during a new acquisition. If MediaNews
is smart, however, the contracts will not be an issue.
According to a Chronicle article yesterday, Ron Burkle's Yucaipa
Cos. attempted to acquire all 12 papers from McClatchy. At least
one union backed that plan, because it hoped to offer employee-ownership.
While that may be a laudable goal, that doesn't protect the public
from the deleterious effects of unabated consolidation.
Media consolidation is occurring at all levels of the industry:
broadcasting, print, radio, and even billboards. It is patently
obvious that media consolidation stifles democracy, because the
message becomes more about the market and less about public service.
A board of directors or a billionaire in New York, Denver, or
Houston ends up determining content in San Francisco, St. Paul,
or Monterey. The truth is no longer important, or even relevant
- all that matters is ensuring profits for advertisers and thus,
Locally, we are already suffering from consolidation.
Clear Channel, for example, controls what music we listen to,
what stations it plays on, and what advertisements are displayed
on billboards around the City, to the extent that it owns and
controls market share in the City. Clear Channel owns over 1200
stations in approximately 189 markets. Some blame its plain vanilla
programming for the decline of local news content, free speech,
and independent and interesting radio. Clear Channel and Viacom
together control 42% of listeners and 45% of industry revenue
in the radio sector.
Agents of Clear Channel maintain that it "no longer owns
any concert promotion businesses or music venues." Maybe
it's because they took some heat for (1) owning radio stations
(2) which would only play certain artists, by virtue of pay to
play (3) who would then come to town as a Clear Channel Entertainment
artist and (4) be advertised on Clear Channel billboards. Is that
the sound of John Sherman and Geo Cartwright rolling in their
graves? My goodness! It's almost deafening. I've got to save my
hearing for if/when Clear Channel decides to get back into the
As to print media, everyone is aware that the Chronicle has financial
problems. The paper lost $65 million last year - not a number
one just walks away from. Yet, the paper is in a hiring frenzy,
particularly for their food section. Could it be because they
are threatened by the development of small independents in town?
Could it be that they are fattening the calf for a sale to a hungry
multinational intending to consolidate? With consolidated suburban
competition, the Chronicle will have to be nimble - not an easy
feat in these times.
The story came out last year that the Pentagon is running what
amounts to advertorials in different countries and seeding false
news to drum up support for America. How is that distinguishable
from the "news" Fox runs every day? Or hiring Tony Snow
to be Bush's spokesman? The consolidated American media has been
in lockstep with the Bush administration - even refusing to display
photographs of coffins of soldiers or carrying statistics of Iraqi
Justice Hugo Black wrote in Associated Press v. United States
(1945) 326 U.S.1, 21 that the First Amendment "rests on the
assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information
from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare
of the public." Justice Black later supported publication
of the Pentagon Papers in New York Times Co. v. United States
(1971) 403 U.S. 713. Would today's Supreme Court support the public
trust as the New York Times Court did?
The bright spot in the consolidation game is that with massive
layoffs, talented journalists are working on their own sources
of independent media. The most intellectually present, and those
that have the best opportunity to help this country, are virtual.
Our democracy benefits greatly by having more sources for news,
in every sector of the media. We must encourage media independence
at all times, at all costs, and we must be vigilant about ensuring
that the consolidation trend does not extend to the Internet.
District 6 resident Jordanna Thigpen is an attorney, small
business owner and President of the San Francisco Small Business
Commission. You can usually find her at work and she doesn't get
to Ocean Beach often enough. Email Jordanna at email@example.com.