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The Message

Criz Stoddard is solidly against media consolidation.
Brett Amole

On June 2, when the Federal Communications Commission voted by a slender majority to slacken many of its broadcast ownership rules, most protesters who'd opposed such a move felt disheartened. Nonetheless, Colorado Springs's Criz Stoddard -- whose left-leaning Springs Action Alliance was one of countless grassroots organizations nationwide to demonstrate in advance against the FCC's decision -- sees grounds for optimism. "We found out that this is a binding theme," she says. "I mean, we're against it, and so is the NRA."

Granted, Stoddard's reasons for resisting further media consolidation could hardly be more different from those of the National Rifle Association. She doesn't want to boost conservatively inclined information purveyors such as the Fox News Channel, whereas Charlton Heston and company are worried that what it referred to in a recent mailing as "gun-hating media giants like AOL Time Warner, Viacom/CBS and Disney/ ABC" will whip up a weapon-banning fervor among the populace if given the opportunity. The NRA urged members to send the FCC postcards decrying this prospect, joining plenty of other collectives with disparate views, and individuals of every description responded. By one count, over 700,000 folks shared their displeasure -- and while they didn't win this time around, people like Stoddard believe there may be a different outcome in round two. "There's still a chance these changes could be rolled back," she says.

FCC commissioners led by Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, didn't overhaul every standard. For instance, radio-station ownership levels remain the same, and the ban against a single firm owning more than one of the big four TV networks wasn't altered. Now, though, local TV stations owned by a single company can cumulatively reach 45 percent of American viewers, rather than 35 percent, the previous threshold, thereby potentially giving networks more clout over more outlets. Businesses can also buy multiple TV stations in the same market, with the number determined by the area's size; in general, a single owner can hold two signals in markets with at least five stations, and three in communities with eighteen or more. (TVRadioWorld. com lists fifteen analog TV stations in the Denver/Boulder area, plus numerous digital and low-power signals.) And for markets with a minimum of nine TV stations, like ours, the prohibition against one entity owning a newspaper and one or more broadcast stations or radio-television combinations is out the window entirely. Goodbye.

That's the way Dean Singleton likes it. The head of MediaNews Group, which owns the Denver Post and over a hundred other print and broadcast properties across the country, Singleton has, by his own account, been working since 1993 to remove FCC limits that prevented a single company from owning a newspaper along with a television or radio station in the same community -- a tenet known as newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership. Indeed, Singleton's advocacy in this area has made him a target for criticism from ostensible peers like the Seattle Times Company's Frank Blethen, who champions local ownership of media properties. When testifying before a Commerce Committee hearing in May, Blethen was asked by New Hampshire Senator John Sununu if he viewed Singleton, who also addressed the panel, as a threat to democracy. Blethen's simple answer: "Yes."

Be that as it may, newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership is officially a reality, and Singleton sees it as a "win-win" for everyone. "When you break it down by facts, it not only looks reasonable, but you have to wonder why it took so long," he says. "The opponents yell and scream about what's wrong with this, but they can't tell you what it is. They haven't shown one piece of hard evidence."

In his Commerce Committee testimony, which was largely reproduced in a May 25 op-ed essay for the Denver Post, Singleton made an intriguing case for how the crushing of cross-ownership barriers would help consumers in small communities. "In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, I own a newspaper that covers the western quadrant of Massachusetts," he stated. "There is no television station there and never has been. If this rule is changed, we could put a station on the air that provided local TV news for the first time ever."

Of course, such a project would present Pittsfield residents with something of a quandary, because the novelty of local television-news coverage would also give MediaNews unprecedented power to influence the community via the media. In Singleton's view, the majority of Pittsfielders would regard this tradeoff as eminently acceptable, and he's probably right. However, his line of reasoning seems less straightforward when applied to Eureka, California, which has four TV stations with relatively few hands on deck; Singleton revealed that the news staff at the strongest of these tops out at eleven. He contends that by combining radio, TV and newspaper service, the pool of news gatherers available to these entities would instantly be much larger, thereby providing better service. Others might counter that the main results, beyond cost savings due to economies of scale, would be greater duplication of stories from medium to medium and, probably, a less competitive environment overall.

Who's right? We may not find out as quickly as many thought even when it comes to MediaNews. The company already owns KTVA-TV in Anchorage, Alaska, which was picked up, according to the MediaNews Web site, "in anticipation of changes in the regulations governing ownership of newspapers, radio and television." Just as important, Singleton said earlier this year ("Green-Light Specials," January 23) that MediaNews was "preparing to purchase both radio and television. In some cases, we already have agreements to do so, subject to the change in the rule." Last week, Singleton told the trade magazine Editor & Publisher that he's likely to exercise an option to buy KTVS-TV in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Despite last week's modifications to FCC directives, Singleton isn't quite ready to make any other announcements. "We have three other situations that are short of options; I'd say we're somewhat engaged. We've been working on them, but the rule doesn't take effect until sixty days after it's published, and then we have to file with the FCC to transfer the license. So I would expect we would have two or more TV stations in newspaper markets early next year." Singleton adds that he's got nothing planned for Denver, in part because the Post's partnership with powerhouse station Channel 9 provides everything joint ownership would, "except combination-advertising sales -- and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that those could be arranged, too. It's difficult to do with two owners, because you've got to figure out how to divvy everything up. But we did some joint advertising during the 2002 Olympics, where the Post did some Olympic sections and cross-promoted to Channel 9. So it can work."

A rub could come courtesy of our nation's elected representatives. As Singleton notes, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the precursor to this month's FCC judgment, "delegated the authority to review ownership rules exclusively to the FCC. These reviews were supposed to be done every two years, and finally, in our seventh year, it's been done. But now you've got Congress ranting and raving as if they have something to say about it."

True enough: Senator John McCain announced last week that he would allow the Commerce Committee, which he chairs, to consider legislation intended to erase some of the FCC's new dictates. The most prominent proposal is Senate Bill 1046, put forward by Senator Ted Stevens and co-sponsored by well-known legislators such as Trent Lott, Ron Wyden, Ernest Hollings and Colorado's own Wayne Allard, which would re-establish local TV-station ownership limits at 35 percent. In a statement released on June 2, Senator Allard alluded to the legislation while explaining his problem with the FCC's edict: "This decision will lead to less competition and less service to the public by decreasing the diversity of media ownership affecting news, information and entertainment for consumers."

Singleton thinks that such high-minded comments obscure what's really inspiring senators like Allard. "It's all emotional," he maintains. "Most of the people on the political side, who don't have a say in this, have a beef with some newspaper or TV station in their district, so they're not happy. You've got the most liberal Democrats in the Senate, and you've also got Wayne Allard, who didn't even know this rule existed until he got angry that the Denver Post didn't endorse him [in 2002]. Once he got angry at the Post, he got on the bandwagon."

To that, Dick Wadhams, Allard's press secretary, replies, "It's unfortunate that Mr. Singleton would ascribe Senator Allard's very principled stance on this important issue to political motivations." As evidence that past support, or lack thereof, hasn't colored Allard's opinion on this topic, Wadhams points out that the senator's beliefs are 180 degrees away from those of the Rocky Mountain News -- it did endorse Allard last year -- which published a June 3 editorial that tweaked the FCC for not going far enough.

Clearly, Allard isn't trying to placate either Singleton or the Rocky on this matter. In his own testimony before the Commerce Committee, as well as in a May 25 op-ed offering for the Post that ran side by side with Singleton's, the senator used the increased advertising rates that followed the joint operating agreement linking the Post and the Rocky as an example of the negatives produced by media consolidation. No wonder he's suddenly caught the attention of ideological opposites like Colorado Springs' Stoddard.

"He's gone on and on in a couple of interviews about how important the small media is and how important it is for conglomerates not to control everything we see," she says. "That's our argument, too."

Stoddard, who works for a Colorado Springs school district, came to her latest cause via a serpentine route. Shortly after attending a February 15 anti-war rally that prompted clouds of tear gas, numerous arrests and the firing of the occasional rubber bullet, she helped found the Southern Colorado Coalition Against War on Iraq as a way of organizing other protests and demonstrations. Unsurprisingly, considering the large military presence in Colorado Springs, such actions didn't make Stoddard and her fellows many friends.

"During the height of the war, it took everything just to keep me here and not to get on a plane to San Francisco," she admits. "I felt like there were thousands of people in the streets there, whereas here we had a lot less, and we were spending most of our time getting flipped off by people with crucifixes hanging off their rearview mirrors."

As the war wound down, Stoddard and about thirty like-minded souls reorganized under the Springs Action Alliance banner in order to address a wider range of concerns -- and two days later, a grabby one cropped up. Dave Moore and Jeff Singer, DJs at country-radio station KKCS, were suspended in early May for playing music by the Dixie Chicks that was forbidden by management because lead Chick Natalie Maines had made a derogatory remark about President George W. Bush from a London stage. The SAA immediately launched a campaign to get Moore and Singer reinstated, and their efforts helped take the story nationwide. "It mushroomed a lot faster than I thought," Stoddard says. "Their Web site went down, their e-mail got jammed up -- it got really big."

After Moore and Singer were put back on the air armed with permission to spin the Chicks again, SAA associates realized that even in Colorado Springs, residents don't like their media options to be restricted -- which made an FCC-oriented protest a natural. On May 29 and 30, SAA forces gathered in front of the local Clear Channel offices, chosen, Stoddard says, because the Texas-based owner of 1,200 radio stations exemplifies the dangers of too much influence winding up in too few hands. "We stood out there with signs and gave a few hundred handouts to commuters driving past," Stoddard reports, "and overwhelmingly, we received a positive response -- quite different from when we were protesting the war. The same people who were pretty mad at us before were saying, 'We don't want to be force-fed news. We don't support corporate group-think.'"

In other words, fear of further media consolidation brought disparate people together in a common cause -- and the coalition hasn't fractured yet. Imagine what that could mean for the future.

Back to the drawing board: Political cartoons often stir passions, but a May 30 effort by Pulitzer Prize-winner Dick Locher set the feelings of many Chicago Tribune readers on purée. For that reason, other newspapers stayed away from the Locher salvo in the days that followed, with one notable exception: the Denver Post, which published it on June 4, days after the cartoon had caused a Windy City uproar.

The illustration in question features a bridge dubbed "Mideast Gulch" on which Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat faces Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; the Sharon figure sports a Star of David on his jacket and an oversized, hooked nose that struck some as untrue to his actual proboscis and reflective of hateful stereotypes. Also on display is a caricature of President Bush, who can be seen placing dollar bills on the bridge in front of Sharon, who says, "On second thought the pathway to peace is looking a bit brighter."

To Locher, speaking to the online arm of Editor & Publisher, the cartoon was not racially denigrating: "I was trying to go to bat for the American taxpayer. Israel is a good friend, but let's get an accounting of where the money is going." Unfortunately for him, others took it differently. The Tribune was swamped with criticism from readers, and even the crosstown Chicago Sun-Times piled on. A June 1 editorial in the Sun-Times declared, "The cartoon's message -- that Israel's interest in peace is sparked not by a desire to end bloodshed, but by American cash -- is a lie that sails beyond legitimate comment into a baseless slur." That same day, Tribune public editor Don Wycliff wrote in his own paper that he tended to agree with a reader who called the cartoon "blatantly anti-Semitic, reinforcing the long-held racist image of Jews as avaricious and greedy." On June 8, a Tribune editorial expressed regret for publishing the cartoon.

At the Post, editorial-page editor Sue O'Brien, who picked the cartoon for publication, didn't hear about this controversy until after the fact. She says the opinion at the heart of Locher's cartoon differs from those espoused editorially by the Post; the paper usually regards American funds earmarked for Israel more as a stick -- something to be withheld at times of dispute -- than a carrot. The illustration was also at variance with a piece on the same topic by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen that O'Brien wanted to run, but she felt printing both offered readers balance and variety. As for Locher's point, she didn't find it anti-Semitic initially, and she had no objection to the sketch of Sharon, because it was a representation of an individual who's been drawn in many ways and not an entire class of people.

After receiving complaints exemplified by angry letters printed in the Post's June 6 and June 9 editions, O'Brien now knows better. In a forthright editor's note printed in both of the issues mentioned above, O'Brien wrote, "The cartoon was troubling on a number of counts, and I deeply regret having published it." Although O'Brien told Westword that she's always tried to keep readers' sensitivities in mind when picking a cartoon, she wants to do even better in this respect. As she put it, "I've tried to make my skin thinner."


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