Does media's mix lack flavors?
At an FCC hearing, both supporters and critics of convergence have their say.
By By ERIC DEGGANS
Published May 1, 2007
TAMPA - It didn't take long for Monday's public hearing on media ownership issues by the Federal Communications Commission to boil down to a single question:
Does media "convergence" - pooling the news-gathering resources of commonly owned news outlets, particularly as practiced by Tampa Tribune, WFLA-Ch. 8 and TBO.com owner Media General - serve the public good or subvert it?
"Don't change things so we can't get the message out about our (advocacy work), " said Mark Lunsford, a father who has became a well-known advocate for tougher child-protection laws after the murder of his daughter, Jessica. "The media works just fine the way it is."
But Lunsford's appreciation was countered by testimony from 27-year-old freelance writer Brandy Doyle, who wondered if she still might have her job at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune after having spoken out about the newspaper's practice of using correspondents like her to cover community news.
"I don't have a journalism degree or training as a professional journalist, " Doyle told the commissioners of her work writing for the newspaper's community news page. "Often stories that could have been developed into informative, meaningful pieces are relegated to the media equivalent of junk food in this section."
The hearing Monday was the fourth of six planned public hearings nationwide on media ownership issues held by the FCC to gather input before it begins a second attempt to revamp rules governing how much media any one company can own in a community.
By 7 p.m., less than halfway through the seven-hour event, about 250 people had filed into Louise Lykes Ferguson Hall at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for the proceedings, which featured two panels of pre-selected participants addressing the commissioners for five minutes each and two periods of public comment.
The crowd was a lively mix of media professionals, activists, politicians and observers, some of whom had waited for hours to address the commission. And those who spoke out against relaxing rules against further consolidation drew the largest applause.
"At too many stations now ... we're 'brand ambassadors' to help sell an image largely unrelated to substance and the quality of our reporting, " said Steve Wilson, a reporter at WXYZ-TV in Detroit who sued WTVT-Ch. 13 in Tampa years ago, claiming he was forced out over a tough story about chemical giant Monsanto.
Karen Brown Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times, suggested a citizen task force could review broadcast license renewals to ensure stations meet their public affairs responsibilities.
"The nation needs the FCC to (lift) ... news from the clutter of talk and opinion, " Dunlap said. "Reports on celebrity breakups or adoptions draw interest, but that doesn't nourish a community, " Dunlap said.
Dan Bradley, vice president of news for Media General, helped build the blueprint for convergence practiced at the company. He says journalists at each outlet now have access to expanded reporting resources and a wider audience reach, thanks to their pooled resources.
"I don't think the people sitting in this hall represent the average news consumer in Tampa Bay, " said Bradley, shrugging off the criticism of Media General from some speakers. "I'm glad these people get to have their say, but they have come here with a very specific point of view."
Only the FCC's two Democratic appointees - consolidation critics Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps - expressed opinions on the issue during brief statements.
But FCC chair Kevin Martin, a Republican who voted for loosened ownership rules in 2003 that Congress rejected, said that didn't mean the commission's three GOP appointees already had made up their minds.
"What I find most helpful is when people present a point of view that might be counter-intuitive, " said Martin, noting comments from a onetime critic of media consolidation, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, who said Monday he saw value for the community in Media General's convergence efforts. "That's really interesting."