All Eyes on Media Glutton Murdoch

Published on
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The Seattle Times

All Eyes on Media Glutton Murdoch

by
Ryan Blethen

Rupert Murdoch, the compulsive buyer of all things media, has a handshake deal with Tribune Co. to buy Newsday for a reported $580 million.

The potential purchase of the nation's 10th-largest newspaper, located on Long Island, could happen even though The Wall Street Journal is still visible within the serpentine body of Murdoch's News Corporation. The digestion should not last much longer. The same day the Newsday agreement hit the press, Marcus Brauchli, the holdover managing editor of the Journal, resigned.

The Newsday-to-News Corporation deal rightly has media reformers upset. The consternation need not stop there. The newspaper's readers, advertisers and anybody concerned with the fragile health of our democracy should be worried. The deal whacks away at one of democracy's pillars, that of an independent press.

Newsday has long been in the hands of large corporations. What makes this deal so unsavory is that it puts an enormous amount of power under the control of arguably the nation's, if not the world's, most powerful media company. Newsday's sale to News Corporation not only cripples an important media market, it will further squeeze the American press into the grip of far too few corporations - corporations with a hunger for profits, not journalism.

Even though the Newsday deal casts a long shadow over the media-reform movement, there is hope. On paper, the deal is dead. Not only does News Corporation's potential purchase of Newsday not hold up under federal cross-ownership rules that limit a company from owning a newspaper and a television station in the same market, but there could be antitrust violations because of Murdoch's other newspapers in New York.

That has not stopped Murdoch before.

"He has been very successful with regulatory gamesmanship," said Andrew Schwartzman, president and CEO of Media Access Project.

In part, Schwartzman is referring to Murdoch's skill at getting around cross-ownership rules to run his two television stations in New York and the New York Post, the country's fifth-largest newspaper. That would appear to be a clear violation of the Federal Communications Commission's cross-ownership rules. That is, unless the owner obtains a waiver to the rule.

Media Access Project (MAP), which works to ensure a diverse media, has challenged Murdoch's license renewal for his two New York television stations and the waivers that come with the renewal. The FCC has been slow to act and, hopefully, might not before a new administration is in the White House.

MAP will amend its challenge to include Newsday if the Long Island paper becomes part of News Corporation. The challenge is important because license renewal happens only every eight years. If the FCC grants Murdoch's renewal and another waiver, it will be eight years until the arrangement can be challenged again.

The new cross-ownership rule adopted by the FCC last December does not do much to help Murdoch. The new rule, which allows for a company to own a newspaper and a single broadcast outlet in the same market, might never take effect. The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee passed a "resolution of disapproval" Thursday, which would kill the rule. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, and Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, have introduced a House version of the resolution.

Those opposed to the Newsday deal see this as not only the first test of the new rule but also a test for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and his willingness to adhere to the regulations he stubbornly championed.

"This is clearly something that under the new rules [Murdoch] has a presumption against him. It is not at all clear that Kevin Martin is dying to help him out," Schwartzman said.

S. Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, a national organization that promotes diverse and independent media, expects the public to be disgusted with the sale.

"Given Murdoch's current ownership of media in the New York area, to be able to add another property on top of that is unacceptable for anyone who cares about the state of our democracy," he said.

I hope Turner is right. At some point, News Corporation's ever-growing appetite will trigger a backlash. Newsday might be just the acquisition to do so.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is rblethen@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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