As chief counsel for the state House Appropriations Committee in the 1970s, C.B. Forgotston knew at least five investigative reporters working in the capital. "There are none today," he says.
Why not? Because evening papers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans have disappeared, and other media outlets have merged, says the attorney and outspoken critic of the state's media and government. The consolidation of media in Louisiana, Forgotston believes, has led to a decline in the quality of news reporting across the state.
"Everything we have that's worthwhile has been fostered by competition," he says. Remove the competition and you remove the incentive to excel. "The media's got a lot of rehabilitation to do, and a lack of competition is not going to rehabilitate it."
Similar arguments fuel the national furor against the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to revamp the regulations governing broadcast media ownership. Among other changes, the new rules, adopted June 2 by a 3-2 vote, increase the national TV ownership cap from 35 percent to 45 percent of U.S. television households and lift the ban on joint ownership of broadcast and TV stations. That means media conglomerates could now own up to three TV stations in the biggest cities, plus radio stations and the daily newspaper.
Critics call the new rules dangerous. They say they'll lead to media giants buying and controlling even more news outlets. That means less opportunity for small media owners and newcomers, and more "absentee landlords" -- national corporations with few incentives to devote resources to local events or to make community-based broadcasting decisions. There's also the fear that local news coverage will shrink as owners of multiple local media cut corners by consolidating newsrooms.
"It's an abominable decision," says Loyola University journalism professor Larry Lorenz. "We need to have an open marketplace of ideas; the marketplace is shrinking all the time, and I do not understand how the (FCC) majority can believe that allowing fewer companies to own more properties is helping to provide diversity in the marketplace. It just doesn't make sense to me."
Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay, says that to people who really understand the issues, the FCC's decision makes perfect sense. "I have not heard one media report that explained this 35-percent rule," says Tauzin, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade, and Consumer Protection. "They all think it applies to ownership of American media and that's not true. You can own less than 3 percent of the market and still be in violation of the rules, if you happen to own it in a big media market."
The 35-percent rule, Tauzin says, means a network can't reach more than 35 percent of the people who could possibly receive its broadcasts in a given market. It's based on population, he says, not ratings.
"How would you feel if a government agency told you you couldn't speak to more than 35 percent of the people in your community if you were a political candidate, or told General Motors they couldn't advertise to more than 35 percent of the car-buying public?" Tauzin asks.
"This rule that the FCC is dealing with is a specific restriction on free speech. It says to any media company, you can't speak to more than 35 percent of the public -- it's a restriction on them speaking, communicating with more than 35 percent of the country. That literally raises the hair on the back of the head of any free speech advocate and that's why the courts have ordered the FCC to either revise it or do away with it."
Lorenz, of Loyola, doesn't buy Tauzin's argument. "He's talking out of both sides of his mouth ... What is the principal difference between 45 percent and 35 percent? He's still restricting."
Court challenges prompted FCC Chairman Michael Powell (son of Secretary of State Colin Powell) to revisit the regulations. So did new technologies that have brought 500-plus channels and Internet broadband access, and the Congressional Telecommunications Act of 1996, which ordered the FCC to review the broadcast-ownership rules every two years and make necessary changes.
The regulations had been "written at a time when there were much fewer channels of communication in our country," Tauzin says, "when there was black-and-white television; when there was only three networks. So telling the three networks that none of them could communicate more to 35 percent of the country might have been sustainable in the age of black-and-white television. But the courts [had begun] telling the FCC to justify that rule."
Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast and online journalism at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, doesn't like the new FCC regulations. But he concedes that the commission was prompted to act by court order.
"The courts had said, 'If you're going to keep these in place, you've got to tell us why,'" Tompkins says. "I think it's hard to make a case that the rules needed to be in place other than the fears," he says. "It's hard to come up with hard data saying what's going to happen if you don't deregulate. ...
"You're asking people to forecast in an industry that had radically changed in 50 years, which is why the FCC has to review its regulations every few years -- because it's a changing, moving target," he says. "The congressman is correct -- the courts have been quite direct in saying you need to look at this.
"But there are a lot of questions about the decision: Did they get enough public input? Why not disclose the regulations publicly before voting on them? The FCC never disclosed a piece of paper saying this is what we're going to do -- everything was leaked. What's up with that?"
Tompkins disagrees with Tauzin's assertion that the issue was about public reach, not media ownership. "The companies themselves think it's about ownership. They said it was all about trying to create a business model that would allow them to operate because of scales of economy. It's more efficient to operate eight stations instead of two," he says. "It IS about ownership."
If there were any procedural problems with the FCC's decision, the lack of public response wasn't among them. The FCC received nearly 750,000 public comments on the vote, the vast majority of which opposed the potential changes.
The FCC received support mainly from Republicans and from Democratic Sen. John Breaux. It was castigated by members of both parties; notable Republicans included Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is leading the charge to overturn the commission's decision in the Senate. Loud opposition came from a mixed bag of ideological voices across the country, including the National Rifle Association, the National Organization for Women, consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader, and Ted Turner, owner of media conglomerate AOL Time Warner, which would have much to gain from the new rules.
Still, FCC chairman Powell -- along with the two other Republicans on the panel, Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy -- rejected requests to delay the vote until the public had more time to review the changes. The other two commissioners, both Democrats, opposed the new regulations and encouraged more time before voting.
Tauzin says he doesn't think the diverse group of dissenters points to a broad national opposition. "Almost every First Amendment fight will draw opposite poles in the same side (of the battle)," he says. Tauzin adds that widespread criticism of Clear Channel Communications -- the Texas-based corporation that went on a buying spree after radio was deregulated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and now owns 1,270 stations from its original 43 -- is unfounded and is used as a tactic to scare people into thinking the recent rule changes will create monopolies. "You hear Clear Channel is a monolith. There's 11,000 radio stations; they own 1,270 -- that's 9 percent," he says. "They're hardly a monopoly."
Clear Channel owns a little more than 16 percent of New Orleans' radio market -- seven out of 43 stations in the metro area. The second biggest radio owner locally is Entercom Communications with six stations.
Critics call the 1996 deregulation of radio a harbinger of things to come, accusing radio giants such as Clear Channel and the nation's second-largest radio network, Cumulus Media, of homogenizing airplay from coast to coast and ultimately limiting free speech. After Sept. 11, Clear Channel distributed to its stations a long and widely criticized list of songs their deejays could not play; among them, "Imagine" by John Lennon and "What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong. Cumulus banned the Dixie Chicks from its 300-plus stations after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President George W. Bush.
Lorenz, the Loyola professor, says he has he noticed a dearth of news coverage on radio stations after the 1996 deregulation. "Once the radio stations deregulated, [many] stopped doing news," he says.
"I'm very dispirited, I guess. I think that the more voices we have in the democratic society, the better served we are."
Efforts have sprung up to challenge the new regulations. Bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to amend or eliminate the latest regulation changes, and there's been talk of court battles. The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission could also intervene to prevent mergers that they consider to violate of federal antitrust laws.
Rep. Chris John, a Louisiana Democrat, is among the main supporters of HR 2052, which would combat the FCC rule changes. "Several local broadcasters in Louisiana have contacted us with their concerns, and primary among their concerns is them losing their ability to reflect the values and tastes of their local viewers," says John spokeswoman Alisha Prather. "Viewers of these stations want to tune in and see local news and local activity. There is a concern that this decision will impede that."
Tauzin argues that such challenges would be disastrous. "The result is that the commission would be in a Catch-22 -- it would be told by Congress that you can't implement the new rule and it would be told by the courts you can't implement the old rule. Then there would no restrictions on consolidations; there would be no rule whatsoever."
The issue, which The New York Times called "the most important changes to the nation's media ownership rules in a generation," only became a major national story in the week before the vote. Lorenz calls that phenomenon a perfect example of why more media voices are needed. "The press did not report on it until they were forced to."
Tompkins, of the Poynter Institute, echoes the sentiment. "It had been a totally undercovered story until the last five days, just at the time when citizens could do nothing about it."