March 29, 2020

‘Concentration of ownership’ concerns media watchdog group

AUGUSTA – A study released by the Media and Democracy Coalition is warning that any merger or acquisition of radio station groups, TV stations or daily newspapers in Maine would result in further loss of local news coverage.

“We find that Maine citizens already face highly concentrated markets with few choices of news and views,” the report concluded. “Possible mergers would only make matters worse, risking both localism and democracy.”

Mark Cooper, of the McGannon Communications Research Center at Fordham University, was the author of the study.

He said Maine’s report covered three markets, Portland, Bangor and Augusta. It measures readership, viewers and listeners of the various media outlets and uses those to determine media concentration in terms of where people get news and information.

The study was conducted for 36 media markets across the country as a result of a Federal Communications Commission decision to consider changing the rules covering media ownership.

Cooper said Maine was chosen as one of the states because it has a local chapter of the coalition.

“Even in Portland, the largest market in the state, any cross-media merger involving the top two newspaper and television firms would increase concentration in excess of the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission merger guidelines,” he said. “In the smaller markets, the outlook is even worse.”

For example, in the Bangor market area, the study indicates that a merger of the largest newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, and the largest TV station, WABI, would result in control of 80 percent of the market.

“You need more diversity in the news,” said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, one of the coalition members. “When you have one owner that owns too much of the source of news, you just don’t get enough diversity in the newsroom and you don’t get enough diversity of voices.”

Pingree, former Maine Senate majority leader, said the state has suffered from mergers that have already happened among media outlets.

Among the mergers she cited were the Seattle-based Blethen family’s purchase of the Portland Press Herald, Morning Sentinel in Waterville, and Kennebec Journal in Augusta; the sale of WLBZ 2 in Bangor and WCSH 6 in Portland to media conglomerate Gannett Co. Inc.; and the numerous radio stations across the state bought by Clear Channel Radio.

“The general public looks to local media as the place to get their information on local issues,” said Jon Bartholomew of Maine Common Cause. “What kind of information are you going to get if one company owns most of the outlets? You are going to get less news and less diversity in the news.”

Dan Panici, University of Southern Maine professor of communications and media studies, said most people do not know who owns the media company that operates the local radio or TV station or the local newspaper.

He said some of the large media companies allow some local control, but studies indicate media concentration has reduced local news coverage.

“It’s sort of you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” he said. “Some people do get upset and concerned when they realize the impact on our democratic process as you have less local news coverage and we have seen that here in Maine.”

The FCC isn’t the only entity considering the media ownership issue. Committees in both the House and Senate are looking at the issue as part of the legislation to reauthorize the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

“I have been concerned for a long period of time about the issue of the concentration of media ownership,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Allen of Maine’s 1st District. “We know you get less diversity of opinion when you get a concentration of ownership.”

Allen, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee that has jurisdiction over the FCC, said Maine has an example of “too much” concentration in Clear Channel Radio.

The Texas-based company owns stations in the Bangor, Augusta and Rockland areas and in the Portsmouth, N.H., market that serves much of York County.

“In Congress I have been trying to block some of the FCC rule changes that I think would lead to more concentration,” he said.

Allen said he has not read the report, but shares the concern that concentration of media ownership could lead to less news and airing of a wide variety of views in media outlets.

U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe serves on the Senate Commerce Committee that is also looking at legislation reauthorizing the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

“It has always been my position that increased media consolidation in the state will reduce the diversity of media sources, free expression and quality of local programming,” Snowe said. “In 2003, when the FCC loosened media ownership caps, I joined eight of my colleagues in the Senate as an original co-sponsor of a resolution disapproving these changes and I co-sponsored legislation to restore ownership caps to their previous levels.”

Snowe has requested that the FCC hold a field hearing in Maine on its proposed rules because of the potential impact they could have on the state.

It is not clear when the FCC will act on the issue and it is unsure whether Congress will complete its review of the telecommunications bill this year.

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