Democracy is in crisis -- not in far parts of the world but right here in the United States.

As with most democracies, the greatest threat to ours is internal. The danger within is the loss of our Fourth Estate -- an independent and free press that is essential if Americans are to be knowledgeable and engaged in the democratic process.

Walter Lippmann said that a free press "should consist of many newspapers decentralized in their ownership and their management, and dependent for their support . . . upon the communities where they are written, where they are edited and where they are read."

From thousands of independent media outlets during Lippmann's heyday in the middle of the past century, media ownership dropped to only 50 companies by 1983. Today what was a concern has become a nightmare: The majority of our media are controlled by just five companies.

Consider the frightening loss of diversity in media voices:

* Less than 20 percent of our newspapers are independent and locally owned.

* In just the past decade, the 10 largest owners of local television stations have tripled the number of stations they own.

* About one-third of the population now listens to radio stations owned by a single company.

Bad things happen when media conglomerates swallow up independent voices: Quality is diminished, local news and investigative journalism disappear, differing points of view vanish, community service becomes an afterthought, and jobs are eliminated. All are sacrificed in an incessant drive for ever-higher profits.

I've been speaking out against consolidation of media ownership and the loss of an independent press since 1988. It is a sad irony that my family now finds itself struggling to preserve the 108-year-old local independence of the Seattle Times in the face of an effort by our Joint Operating Agreement partner, the New York-based conglomerate Hearst, to gain ownership.

The relentless march of media consolidation has largely gone unreported in the mainstream press. After all, why would newspaper and media companies that already have control, and seek more, want their own outlets reporting stories that run counter to their financial interests?

The 1996 deregulation of radio virtually ended local ownership in that medium. Clear Channel now operates 1,240 radio stations nationwide and has gutted what once was an important network of independent, community-based stations generating news and information.

The Federal Communications Commission began its current review of broadcast rules in 2001, working quietly with the big media companies. Media behemoths such as Tribune Co. and Gannett were touting increased stock value to analysts on the assumption the FCC would enable further unbridled consolidation. The mainstream media didn't report the story, and the FCC refused to engage the public -- holding only one public hearing, and that very reluctantly.

At the darkest moment, with the FCC poised to unleash the next great wave of destructive newspaper and media consoli- dation, a national grass-roots effort materialized. Nearly 2.3 million people sent messages to the FCC and Congress opposing FCC rule changes. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) called it the greatest spontaneous outpouring of citizen reaction he had seen. But the FCC went ahead and posted new, less restrictive rules designed to help the media conglomerates.

A June victory in a lawsuit led by the Media Access Project has at least temporarily helped protect our democracy by preventing these rule changes from taking effect.

Both the unprecedented outcry by citizens and the court victory have awakened Congress to the need to act. It's a bipartisan awakening that reflects the public's broad and passionate understanding that the loss of a free, independent press and diversity of media voices is antithetical to democracy.

Members of Congress and key committees are beginning to express interest in hearings and legislation to stop this dangerous consolidation. Next year the Commerce Committee is required to revisit the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This will be an important review, and a critical opportunity to set new public policy.

In the meantime, Congress should begin hearings to engage the American people in discussing and seeking solutions to this vital national issue. The goal should be to create an environment where we can again look to America's newspapers and other media for diverse ownership and journalism that isn't driven solely by profit margins.

Specific areas of focus should include exploring all legal avenues to ensure diverse newspaper ownership, including our antitrust laws; keeping and vigorously enforcing current FCC broadcast rules; re-regulating radio; prohibiting same-market ownership of more than one type of medium (newspaper, television, radio).

We are at a critical juncture. We can allow the media moguls to keep aggregating and let American democracy erode. Or we can take action to end this march of consolidation and save independent newspapers and other media for the citizens of this country.

The writer is publisher of the Seattle Times.