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Elephant in the Newsroom: The REAL media consolidation problem is the AP network 8/1/07

Posted by Steve Boriss in AP, Consolidation.
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The FCC’s release of 10 new studies on media consolidation is accompanied by outcries from the usual suspects, claiming that corporate buyouts leave viewers with “fewer choices for information.” But, no one ever seems to ask why we have almost no choices of information right now. Why is it that our news has been limited to a single “national conversation?” And why, strangely, does no one ever acknowledge that this might be a problem in a large country with an infinite number of possible stories and angles?

In fact, the mother of all media consolidations — the formation of the Associated Press — is the reason that all of our mainstream outlets run just about the same stories. It began in 1848 as a clever and benign arrangement in which NY newspapers pooled their transportation and telegraph resources to get news from across the Atlantic faster and cheaper. But, it soon degenerated into a collusive, anti-competitive scheme. The AP papers shrewdly signed an agreement giving Western Union exclusive rights to their telegraph business in exchange for higher telegraph fees for all other news providers. Then, AP bylaws were redrafted to give members veto power over admission of would-be competitors in their local circulation areas. In desperation, the fledgling Chicago Sun took the AP all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1945 found it to be in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

But, bylaws or no bylaws, the damage was done, and we continue to suffer from the AP’s improprieties. Today’s papers are collaborators, not competitors. Through their membership in the AP, they share news with each other, and use precious column inches to reprint the same, single set of national stories — space that could be used to provide more choices of information. In fact, the reporting costs are so low when papers work through the not-for-profit AP that no one can make a profit by launching a paper with alternative information. Now you know why not a single, financially self-sustaining metropolitan daily newspaper has been founded in more than 60 years.

Hey, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps! You really wanna do something about media consolidation? Move your Board seat from the FCC to the FTC, forget about Big Oil, Big Pharmaceutical, and Big Tobacco, and break-up the corporate conspiracy that has sharply limited our choices of information and greatly harmed our democracy — “Big News.”

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