June 6, 2013

Reed Hundt was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993 to 1997. This is adapted from a speech he gave Wednesday at UCLA.

A widespread though unverified rumor had it that President Bill Clinton did not want the newspaper-broadcast ownership rule repealed as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act because he did not want the owner of the Little Rock newspaper to be the same person who owned the dominant Little Rock television station. Fritz Hollings, then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, did not want the Federal Communications Commission to repeal the rule for the same reason, transposed to the media of South Carolina. But if I lacked the gumption and votes at the FCC to get rid of the rule then, the proliferation of Internet access and content over the past 17 years should give today’s commissioners the conviction to do the right thing.

In celebration of our commitment to freedom, the FCC should eliminate the rule that constrains the owner of a broadcast TV station from also owning a newspaper in the same city, and vice versa — forthwith.

I think Fox News has exceeded the Koch brothers — because Fox has been at it longer — in degrading, dumbing down and distorting political discourse in America. Yet I cannot see any reason why Fox, its parent company or News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch should not be allowed to buy the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune or any other newspaper — provided that antitrust laws are followed.

The FCC rule was issued in 1975. Under current conditions, the rule is perverse.

First, the Internet makes plenty of information available to all. Internet access has reached 78 percent of the nation’s adults and 95 percent of teens. Total time spent in media still favors television — which draws 42 percent of total attention time. But time spent with print media is down to 6 percent, whereas the Internet draws 26 percent of Americans’ media time. Today, for the owner of any single broadcast TV station to buy one newspaper simply does not consolidate much attention for that owner’s point of view.

Second, social networks give us more critical information, and are almost certainly more trustworthy, than any media outlet that is run to please an owner or a group guided by a profit-maximizing motive. Sixty percent of Americans used social media to engage in political activities in the election of 2012. None of us can know what is going on without access to media, but we are all right to trust our friends, more than corporate media, to tell us what’s up.

Third, newspapers remain the most important concentration of truth-seekers and truth-tellers in the United States. Although the Internet has put newspapers at risk, most broadcasters continue to run profitable businesses. If a profitable broadcaster wants to buy a newspaper in its city — to expand the attention it can obtain from an audience or to have more impact on the way people think — the FCC should welcome this extra support for the troubled newspaper industry.

It is important that minority views — whether a minority is defined by race, religion, wealth, income, politics, education, disability, gender, sexual orientation or any other distinction — have the chance to be heard. But there’s no way for the FCC to accomplish this laudable goal by controlling who can own a newspaper. The way to put the “free” in “free speech” lies in two efforts: The FCC should pass a rule forcing immediate disclosure in paid political advertisements of who paid for them, and it should guarantee that the Internet is always open to all points of view.

If the FCC quickly repealed the rule on newspaper-broadcast ownership, there’s a good chance that many business combinations would attempt to acquire the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. I imagine that someone as progressive in politics as I am — but vastly richer — might want to assemble a broadcast-TV combination that would increase audiences for both, to expand news coverage on television and to build a better Web presence than either a newspaper or a TV station could do it on its own. That might be the deal that beats out the Koch family for the L.A. Times.

Besides, if it were to come to that choice, I’d rather have Murdoch own the Times than the Kochs.

Of course the largest point is this: The former FCC chairman can have a preference about who owns a newspaper or a TV station. But the current FCC chairman should let the market decide. One of the glories of the United States is that we truly believe in free speech. When applied to media, that means we should honor the freedom to own the means of speech.