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Consolidate this!

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, shareholders.

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 promotion business.

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 casualties.

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 jgthigpen@gmail.com.




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