A public trust with no public and less trust

March 20, 2006

The mayor of Aberdeen, S.D., was talking to a Los Angeles Times reporter about the impending sale of Knight Ridder Inc., owner of his small city’s newspaper. “No change would be good,” he said. “Right now they contribute hugely to the community.”

Amid the financial maneuverings prompted by the forced decision of the country’s No. 2 newspaper chain – owner of 32 daily papers, including this one – to put itself up for sale, the South Dakota mayor’s comment was an oddity.

Who asked him? For all the sanctimonious blather about how essential the news media are to public life, how the press is a public trust, when vital decisions are made about the media the public has no say. As generations of Hollywood mobsters have said: “It’s just business.”

We’re loyal citizens, trained to accept that. It’s in the Constitution, right? Apparently yes, the First Amendment confers exclusive control over our mightiest instruments of public discourse to financial speculators. The public has a sacred right to wait for word at the boardroom door, if they wait silently.

In December, I was struck by the effort of an offshoot of MoveOn.org, the political activists, to hit an unusual target: They gathered 45,000 petition signatures denouncing Tribune Co., the Chicago-based conglomerate with major newspaper and broadcast holdings, for cutting 900 newsroom jobs.

MoveOn wasn’t protesting Tribune for opposing policies dear to its liberal membership. Its position was that fewer reporters would mean poorer news coverage and a diminished public life. And MoveOn had the temerity to suggest that this is an appropriate topic for ordinary people to say something about.

Sure, had newsroom staffs been slashed by some governmental edict, the effect on public life would be no worse, but the edict would have been universally condemned as dictatorial and intolerable.

Somehow, while people love to fulminate over media content, the fundamental realities of media operations are outside the sphere of public comment. Nobody’s campaigning over shuttered foreign bureaus, watery local coverage, lousy campaign reporting, denatured public debate – all things that keep us ignorant and disenfranchised, but which we’re told are not ours to complain about.
Recently William Powers, columnist for the National Journal, proposed to break the logjam over whether Katie or Bob or Diane should be the next network news anchors. His solution: Open up the field to all comers, and let the public vote.

“Since TV anchors are among our most visible and powerful public figures, isn’t it strange that they’re chosen in secret?” Powers asked.

He was joking, but he’s got a point. It has never been clear why, for example, immensely lucrative local broadcast licenses aren’t voted on, with the public deciding which applicant offers the greatest community benefits, or why cable franchises aren’t awarded by requiring contenders to convince voters that their package of prices and services is best.

Some say the public does decide: The market is the mighty system that translates popular preference into commands.

Within limits, that’s true. The market enables cheaper alternatives to draw consumer dollars, rewards innovations with early support, encourages imagination and risk-taking, and steers resources along promising avenues.

But the market also enshrines raw power. It denies any say to those with little money and insulates established players from competition behind formidable barriers to entry. It’s simply incapable of compensating news organizations for the very things they do that are most beneficial – like helping keep public life honest.

Nor does it help when a company that was a marketplace success, which produced valuable services at a reasonable profit, disappears because it failed to meet the expectations not of its public, but of Wall Street speculators.

Financiers have their own logic, and it’s worth hearing. They profit when productive assets are sold to those who, they think, will make the best use of them.

But it isn’t the only logic that should be heard.

The magnificent constitutional principle that bars government from infringing on press freedom was intended to keep our strongest instruments of public discourse under the public’s control. Instead, it provides legal justification for public powerlessness.

No representative of the public sits on the boards of these supposedly public trusts. Nobody’s going to ask Aberdeen’s mayor or his constituents what should become of their city’s newspaper.

When its fate is decided they’ll just have to buy a copy to find out about it.

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