In the Flathead Valley, one newspaper chain owns every local paper except the Missoula Independent, which recently opened a bureau office in downtown Kalispell.
In Missoula, two companies—Fisher Broadcasting and Clear Channel Communications—own 12 of the city’s 16 radio stations.
And in Washington D.C., broadcasters and newspaper owners are currently lobbying the Federal Communications Commission in an effort to further consolidate the nation’s media.
Since 1975, the FCC has prohibited most large media companies from ownership of both print and broadcast outlets in the same market. Now, under the leadership of Bush-appointee Michael Powell—son of Colin—the FCC is prepared to do away with what’s known as the cross-ownership rule. A decision is expected in June.
Proponents of the change insist that deregulation will bring better news coverage and improved media products.
Gene Patterson with Clear Channel in Missoula says the last major round of FCC deregulation, in 1996, revived local news radio. “There wasn’t a local [radio] newsperson in the mid-1990s,” says Patterson. “Now there are two on KGBO.”
In addition to KGBO, Clear Channel owns KYSS, KBAZ, KLTC, KLCY and KLYQ. “Those six voices aren’t saying the same thing,” says Patterson. “That’s the diversity that’s happening today.”
“Diversity” isn’t a term everyone associates with Clear Channel. Recording artists complain the company stifles variety. As for news, the conflict in Iraq has spurred many Clear Channel stations to speak with one voice. “The Mix” media column on Alternet.org recently pointed out that “Clear Channel radio stations in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Antonio, Cincinnati and other cities have sponsored rallies attended by up to 20,000 people. The events have served as a loud rebuttal to the more numerous anti-war rallies.”
The company’s pro-war stance might win it friends with the current administration, but Congress holds no shortage of Clear Channel critics. In a late January hearing, politicians from both sides of the aisle took swings at Clear Channel, each using the company as an example of deregulation’s ills.
“Radio consolidation has contributed to a 34 percent decline in the number of owners, a 90 percent rise in the cost of advertising rates, and a rise in indecent broadcasts. If ever there were a cautionary tale, this is it,” said Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, (D-S.C.).
The cautionary tale about media consolidation in the Flathead is rewritten each week when the “animal papers”— Whitefish Pilot, Bigfork Eagle and Hungry Horse News—fill already sparse news holes with shared stories. The result is less local news specific to individual communities and more filler passed between these three Hagadone papers.
The Hagadone Corporation also owns The Daily Inter Lake, and if the FCC rescinds its cross-ownership rule, it would be allowed to own TV and radio stations in the Flathead as well.
Jim Thompson, Hagadone’s vice president for communications, says his company has no plans to expand into broadcast media, “But I wouldn’t want to close the door on that. I’m certainly in favor of cross-ownership.”
Lee Enterprises—owner of the Missoulian—says it also has no plans to expand into broadcast media if the FCC rule change goes through. But like Hagadone, it is not troubled by increased media consolidation.
Others are concerned, including Independent publisher Matt Gibson.
“Deregulation is supposed to encourage competition, but in fact the conglomerates are bulking up to gain absolute control over the marketplace.”
And consider this quote delivered during testimony at an FCC hearing in late February: “Repeal [of the cross-ownership rule] would be a giant crack in the foundation of our democracy. The specter of media dominance by a small handful of conglomerates controlled by faceless financial investors and driven by CEO stock options is enough to scare George Orwell.”
The shrill words of a liberal media watchdog? No, it’s Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, a paper that endorsed the election of President Bush and recently editorialized in favor of the nation’s attack on Iraq.