Freedom of the press is eroding before our eyes

 

On Sept. 1, the Idaho Statesman ran a fascinating expose of local CEO salaries. The amounts of money, stock options and the all-encompassing "bonuses" lavished on these public company executives were staggering and obscene. Not to mention, according to Statesman reporter Julie Howard, "generous severance, salary, pension and retirement packages."

Many of the companies the chief executive officers represented had lost money in the last year. Yet, according to Howard, "Out of 15 Idaho public companies examined, 11 paid their CEOs more even as company earnings fell." Indeed, Howard reports in fiscal year 2001, George J. Harad, CEO of publicly traded Boise Cascade, brought in a total compensation package of around $1.6 million * a half-million-dollar raise from the year before. This reward came after he led the company to a loss of almost a dollar a share.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the Idaho Statesman story was that it ran the piece at all. After all, corporate names are everywhere in Boise, a city that will give away naming rights for just about any corporate donation. (Down Interstate 94 in Caldwell is Albertsons College, named for the same family that owns the grocery store chain. The joke is that Albertsons has an express checkout line at its admissions office: 12 credits or less.)

Not known for hard-hitting investigative journalism, the Statesman itself is a corporate-owned paper, part of the large publicly traded Gannett media empire (its New York Stock Exchange symbol is "GCI") that owns major dailies in many of the state capitals in the West. In the Western United States, all but Alaska, New Mexico and Wyoming have Gannett-owned properties. Those properties also include television stations.

The selling-off of independent, family-owned newspapers to corporations in just the last decade is startling. Currently, of the 1,500 daily newspapers in the United States, only around 250 are family-owned. Ten years ago that number was 358.

The demise of the independent newspaper and the concentration of media ownership were two of the main topics discussed at a symposium I attended in September at the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, titled "The Independent Family Newspaper in America: Its Future and Relevance." One keynote speaker was the Western dean of family-owned newspapers, Seattle Times' publisher Frank Blethen. He warned of impending regulations before the Federal Communications Commission that would weaken existing cross-ownership laws - one company owning a newspaper and television station in the same area - and lead to additional sell-offs among family-owned newspapers.

A similar erosion of ownership laws came courtesy of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This led to a single company, Clear Channel Communications, gobbling up some 1,225 radio stations. As Salon's Eric Boehlert wrote last June 2001, the Telecom Act "unleashed unprecedented deregulation and media consolidation, among the most pronounced in American history."

The result is that Clear Channel stations often feature regional "ghost" disc jockeys. That is, the "local" voice you hear in Albuquerque, N.M., may be talking to you from Seattle, Wash. This centralization of resources has, in turn, led to the death of local radio news staffs and, more importantly, to one less watchdog at city hall.

Blethen, a fourth-generation Seattle Times owner, believes a lack of public scrutiny erodes democracy - the people's right to know - and he doesn't want that the same consolidation to happen to newspapers. In addition to preserving the FCC's bans on cross-ownership, Blethen also called for an end to the estate tax and for the federal government to create tougher anti-trust laws.

"Our democracy is far more fragile than we'd like to admit," Blethen said in his symposium keynote. "The concentration of our media in large public companies is posing one of the greatest threats ever to its survival."

Blethen said when the corporate bottom line is at stake newspaper editors are not as likely to invest in expensive investigative journalism pieces that may attack key advertisers or expose government malfeasance.

"Where is the watchdog?" Blethen asked. "Right now, it's a lapdog." Is this true? Have reporters become stenographers, dutifully writing down what press secretaries and public relations flacks feed them, instead of challenging those statements?

Most reporters are dedicated professionals, as witnessed by the Idaho Statesman's story on excessive corporate salaries. But it gets harder every day for those same reporters to do their jobs in a corporate culture that pays more attention to its quarterly earnings than to its public obligation of sorting out truths from lies.

"Can American democracy survive the loss of the independent press and diversity of voices?" Blethen asked. "The answer is no."

Stephen J. Lyons lives in the Midwest.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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