January 29, 2003

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In this issue

I USED TO say that the scariest statistic I'd ever seen was a poll showing that more than 75 percent of U.S. households got all or most of their news about the world around them from one daily newspaper and the evening news on one of the three major broadcast networks. I don't even remember who took the poll, or when; it was at least 15 years ago.

But I know it's gotten worse – and the real bad news is still a few weeks away.

In this era of Internet media, when vast amounts of information are supposed to be available to the public, I think it's safe to say even more people get their news from even fewer sources. A small handful of companies control the vast majority of the major news outlets. And, as Camille T. Taiara reports, next month the Federal Communications Commission is likely to scrap the few remaining rules banning media monopolies. Soon a company like Disney could literally own all four big networks as well as major newspapers in hundreds of cities.

The impact, critics of the FCC note, is alarming on many fronts. Here's one: as more and more media become controlled by national outfits, with more and more syndicated stuff, fewer and fewer people get interested and involved in local politics. That's fine with the media monopolies – they see us as consumers, not as citizens. They see their role as selling products, not as providing the information necessary to make democracy work.

Ironically, just as we were finishing up this issue, we learned that federal and state prosecutors had charged the SF Weekly's parent corporation, New Times Corp., with violating antitrust laws in an effort to end alternative-newspaper competition in Los Angeles and Cleveland. New Times (and Village Voice Media, its deal-making partner) have reached a settlement with the states and the feds, and they admit no guilt.

But the federal complaint explains how the deal to shutter competing papers in the two cities went down – and it makes clear that New Times and VVM were only looking at how to raise ad rates and make more money, not at the impact the closures would have on the communities.

The alternative press is one of the few antidotes to the merger mania that has overtaken the major media – and when alt-press chains start acting like the big boys, it's very bad news indeed.

Tim Redmond

tredmond@sfbg.com