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Conflict of Disinterest

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps and I had lunch in New York last fall to talk about the media-ownership proceeding now coming to a head. He has been the major opponent of loosening the rules. I favor anything that gets government out of the media business (see editorial, opposite page), so we mostly disagreed. But we did concur on two points: 1) the food at Union Pacific justifies its expense-account prices (we split the check) and 2) TV news's neglect of the media-ownership story has been disgraceful.

Can you imagine the broadcast-network newsmagazines or cable news networks ignoring significant deregulation of any other industry the size of TV and radio? I can't. Every time a suitcase gets lost, they want to talk about airline deregulation, and that happened 25 years ago.

What if President Bush moved to deregulate the pharmaceutical industry? "Hey, fellows, no need to submit those new drugs for testing. Just go ahead and sell 'em. You'll save a lot of money on lab rats, and PETA will love ya."

The media business is the most narcissistic around. It loves to talk about itself, to publicly agonize about what it does and how it does it. Even as the tanks rolled through the Iraqi desert toward Baghdad, pundits pondered the independence of embedded reporters, the inherent conflict between patriotism and journalism, and whether it is okay to show the carnage of war.

I don't mean to denigrate such introspection. How media cover the world is important. Media are vital to democracy and the preservation of American freedom.

It is for that very reason that media should be covering the who's who of media and how changes in the FCC rules might impact the roster. After the FCC votes June 2, fewer companies will come to own more TV and radio stations, and bigger companies will absorb smaller ones. What does that mean?

Most Americans don't understand how concentrated media is and how much more concentrated it might become. They look at the dazzling array of channels on the programming grid and assume they must be getting a lot of different points of view. They don't realize that most of the channels are controlled by a handful of like-minded corporations. But they should know. And they should be part of the FCC debate as the FCC prepares its new rules.

I also don't think the public understands how government regulation of content and ownership can restrict what they see and hear on TV, or how not deregulating might result in fewer newscasts in their communities.

So given all this, why is big media sitting out the dereg story? The media execs say they have an ethical conflict: They can't do a big story on an issue in which they are a party. How convenient. At this point, of course, a major TV story might slow down, if not derail, the march toward deregulation, and those same media execs are counting on deregulation. That is why I suspect TV decision-making has as much to do with self-interest as ethical purity.

I'm not saying e-mails went out from corporate headquarters warning the news division off the story (although if any did, I would like to see them). But the news divisions are run by smart folks who know that it's not a good idea to take on the bosses and, besides, resources are limited and there are a lot of other stories to cover.

Media have had opportunities. Over the past several months, the FCC or one or two of the commissioners held public hearings, which drew people for and against deregulation. The hearings—in New York, Richmond, Los Angeles, Seattle and Durham, N.C.—provided plenty of lively video.

Some big media are paying attention. The national newspapers—The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today
and The Wall Street Journal—have been giving it substantial treatment of late. On the TV side, C-SPAN has been good, covering, for instance, Sen. McCain's hearing last week that aired all sides of the issue. Bill Moyers' Now on public television has been hammering away at the story. And last Thursday, ABC's Peter Jennings finally stepped up with a respectable and even-handed report.

But it's not enough.The network newsmagazines, the other evening newscasts and the cable talk shows need to get on this story—and soon. The final FCC countdown has begun.

Jessell may be reached at