WASHINGTON - Media consolidation and cross-ownership, where fewer and fewer big conglomerates determine the information Americans see, read and hear, shuts out women and minorities, a panel of experts on the issue says.
And that consolidation and concentration also hurts democracy, the group, including The Newspaper Guild's president, Bernie Lunzer, told a packed-house crowd at the Newseum, D.C.'s museum to the news business, on Jan. 24.
While the panel on "Media Ownership and the Public Interest" did not specifically say so, media concentration is important to workers, and not just because concentration costs minorities and women a shot at owning media outlets or getting media jobs.
Media concentration also reduces the variety of voices and viewpoints and the breadth of information Americans can see, hear and use for informed decisions on public policy and issues. Those issues range from jobs versus the deficit to the performance of local schools, the panelists added.
Labor is one of the voices ignored - or worse - by media conglomerates, studies show.
More media concentration means lessened coverage of issues vital to workers and citizens. The conglomerates instead play to popular preferences in their pursuit of profit, Lunzer and the others said. Quality is sacrificed.
"It's a good time to be a corrupt congressman," Lunzer commented, given the decline in breadth and depth of coverage of politics - federal, state and local - by media conglomerates.
"If the only condition" for a media owner to meet "is what's most popular, then it (coverage) would be all Britney (Spears) all the time."
The issue of media concentration will come to a head, again, sometime within the next few weeks. The Obama administration's Federal Communications Commission, at the behest of chairman Julius Genachowski, is scheduled to vote on proposed rules to let media conglomerates increase their concentration the top 20 U.S. markets.
Unions, led by The Newspaper Guild, plus the courts, Congress and citizens, have strenuously opposed past FCC attempts, under Republican administrations, to enhance media concentration. Sen. Bernard Sanders, Ind.-Vt., who led the past congressional opposition to
such concentration, urged the crowd to spread the word about the FCC's latest plan and to organize opposition to it again.
The conglomerates argue that allowing newspapers and other media in the same big metro areas to be under the same ownerships produces "synergies" of enhanced coverage. The panelists rejected that claim, at least in the case of newspapers and broadcast cable or TV stations.
Increased concentration of media power in few conglomerates also led to declines in newsroom and television numbers, especially women and minority-group members, the panelists noted.
In one example, the Baltimore Sun, a major metro daily unionized with The Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, now has a total newsroom staff of 81 and fewer than 200 workers overall. Years before its takeover by one of the big media conglomerates, the Tribune Co., and Tribune's subsequent bankruptcy reorganization, the Sun employed more than 400 people.
In another example, the Georgia state capitol newsroom used to host 15 reporters. Now it hosts five. Nationwide, newspaper staff numbers have dropped to those of 1974, before Watergate. Local broadcast television stations and national networks also cut staff and coverage, with women and minorities the first to go.
The conglomerates also argue consolidation and cross-ownership will keep mass media alive to perform their information function for a democracy. The panelists doubted that. They admitted newspapers have smaller profit margins now than years ago, and said classified advertising revenue - the largest revenue stream for most papers - fell by 70% in the last decade. Broadcast profits are also down.
But newspaper declines are due to the Internet, they said. Google and Craigslist, among others, have taken away classified ads.
There is no hard and fast solution, at least according to the panel. The conglomerates also claim Internet access improves quantity and quality of available information. But Lunzer noted almost 40% of the country is still not wired - and its' even higher in low-income communities.
Panelists floated Ideas for alliances between radio stations and newspapers, changing tax laws to allow non-profit organizations to own for-profit media outlets and even fees extracted when the FCC awards broadcast licenses. Money from the fees would go to promote diversity both in print and broadcast newsrooms and in ownership. Sanders, wrapping up, admitted all the problems exist, but warned of the immediate threat from the FCC. The agency "is acting under the radar screen," he said.
Photo: A female journalist. Robert Thivierge // CC 2.0