Justification for cross-ownership ban fades

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations has long been strictly regulated, but that may be about to change. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Federal Communications Commission is expected to approve a proposal that would permit ownership of both a newspaper and major television and radio station in the nation’s 20 largest markets.

The idea behind the limitation was to prevent a single media entity from dominating the free flow of information to a community. The FCC had the power to limit ownership for broadcast stations under its regulatory powers, stemming from the licensing of broadcast frequencies.

The lifting of the ownership restrictions is probably inevitable. The media landscape has changed dramatically and with the advent of digital communications, there’s unprecedented diversity of news sources in communities all over the country. There was a time when the local newspaper and  radio or television station would have virtual monopolies on their platforms, but blogs, websites and video-laden sites offer alternative content in myriad ways.

Common Cause, a proponent of continuing the cross-ownership ban, argues that the limits serve communities well. They contend that journalism would suffer and diverse voices would not be heard if there’s a concentration of ownership. They also ask who will serve as a watchdog on a broadcast station if the newspaper has common ownership.

Those are legitimate concerns, but they’re also largely inherent in contemporary journalism, regardless of ownership. As newspaper circulation has declined, there are fewer reporters to inform the community, less commitment to diversity in the newsroom and less outreach to underserved communities.

There’s an argument that opening newspaper ownership to broadcast stations will stabilize some newspapers, and allow them to continue to serve the public.

In a free society, there’s a presumption that we can speak and report freely without government interference. Limits on ownership are an infringement on freedom of the press, and the justifications for the ban are no longer as compelling.

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