The Federal Trade Commission refused to permit publishers of free-circulation newspapers-called "shoppers" in some communities-to take part in a controversial symposium on media ownership scheduled to open today, an FTC attorney confirmed yesterday.
Heather Kirkwood, a lawyer in the agency's bureau of competition, said appeals from publishers of the free papers to be included in the program were rejected because "we want to focus on the flow of ideas and news and not on advertising" and because of the free publications' known criticism of chain owners who will come under attack at the FTC symposium.
Noting that paid-circulation newspaper companies for the most part have declined to take part in the FTC program, Kirkwood said "we didn't want to go overboard" in presenting viewpoints opposed to newspaper companies and chains. She also said many other parties had sought to participate and had to be turned away because of a limited, two-day schedule.
Ironically, Kirkwood's statement that the symposium is designed to deal with the "flow of ideas and news" goes to the heart of criticism about the symposium by the American Newspaper Publishers Association-that the FTC has no business looking into news reporting behavior.
While trade practices and advertising regulation are within the scope of FTC jurisdiction, the press "is not identical to any other business; and any governmental inquiry which could affect the constitutionally protected functions must be approached most carefully and sensitively," ANPA executive vice president Jerry Freidheim told FTC Chairman Michael Pertschuk in an Oct. 23 letter.
Requiests by free-circulation publishers to be included in the symposium were filed with the FTC by the National Association of Advertising Publishers, a trade association for more than 600 publishers of 1,100 papers distributed in local communities with no circulation cost.
According to Harry Shupe, a Washington lawyer for the group, owners of the free publications are primarily small business persons in mediumsized and rural communities. But there also are free publications in big cities, such as the Uptown Citizen in northwest Washington.
Many free papers are dominated by advertising with little independent news gathering, but in some instances the free-circulation papers have full editorial staffs and are major publications in their communities. Indeed, a few free publicators in some cities are owned by chains that also publish regular dailies, for which subscribers pay, elsewhere.
"A major concern today is the increasing competition from national, chain-owned media groups who can use their financial 'clout' and create an unfair competitive situation . . . a real threat to the small, independent businessman," said Shuppe, in discussing the FTC's action.
At first, Kirkwood of the FTC was "receptive" to the request by free papers to take part in the agency's program, paying particular attention to the free papers' concerns about acquisitions of weeklies and free papers by established chains.
"Thereafter we became aware of the refusal of the other newspaper associations to participate, and in subsequent meetings we received the impression from the officials at the FTC that they would not be able to invite NAAP to participatef with a panel member because of possible appearance of bias toward the dailies," Shupe recounted.
The lawyer asserted that his group's publishers are concerned with the same "constitutionally protected functions" described by Friedheim. The association he represents filed a detailed, four-page memorandum with the FTC suggesting discussion topics and generally supporting "full inquiry" into the subject of ownership concentration.
Specifically, the free publishers called on the FTC to find that ownership of any more than one news medium within a local market "is a threat to and possible violation of an titrust law."