Murdoch Takes His Licks
EVERYBODY knows that it isn't good for the same guy to own all the newspapers and television stations. So Ernest Hollings won some sympathy last week when he said it was "on principle" that he attached to a catchall spending bill a little-noticed provision that may force the sale of two newspapers in a national media group.
In the following days, though, Senator Edward M. Kennedy '54 revealed he had urged Hollings to take measures against the Boston Herald, a holding of Australian born media mogul Rupert Murdoch which routinely blasts Kennedy and his liberal colleagues in the Massachusetts congressional delegation. The only principle on which Kennedy and Hollings acted was that it's okay for senators to put their personal political agendas before the public's interests as long as they do so behind closed doors.
The two--perhaps with the consent of Massachusett's junior senator, John Kerry--added an 11th hour ban against the Federal Communication Commission's spending money on cross ownership hearings to an 800-page omnibus spending package passed just before Congress adjorned for the holidays. As a result, a fiesty Boston daily willing to sail against Massachusett's prevailing political tide almost certainly will lose its spark. And a mediocre New York paper, the Post, may close down, which would leave New York with one fewer paper that might one day improve--and 1300 people without jobs.
THE PROVISION, which Hollings described as "aimed directly" against Murdoch, prohibits the Federal Communication Commision from considering Murdoch's request that it reverse "cross-ownership" restrictions, which make it impossible for the same individual to own both a daily newspaper and television station in the same area. To keep Boston's Channel 25, and New York's Channel 5, integral to his attempt to build a fourth t.v. network, Murdoch will have to sell the papers.
Kennedy's statement that he aimed to serve "the best interest of Boston and the best interest of the First Ammendment," doesn't hold up. Cross-ownership restrictions have outlived their usefulness--and may actually contribute to growing concentration of media ownership.
Skyrocketing technology and labor costs have strained many newspapers past the breaking point. Also, national newspaper chains have bought up financially troubled papers, further restricting diversity in the news.
Despite this, the cross-ownership restrictions keep newspapers from putting knowledge of local areas and communication expertise to use in television stations, from which profits could be taken to subsidize struggling newspapers.
In November, the FCC heard testimony from the Freedom of Expression Foundation, a respected Washington-based media monitoring organization, that "cross ownership" restrictions are no longer needed. And Kennedy and Hollings resorted to deceptive means only after the Senate subcommittee Hollings himself heads failed to clear the cross-ownership restrictions in July.
ALTHOUGH the Herald, which made $1.5 million last year, is not the struggling paper Murdoch bought in 1982 and could certainly attract a buyer, Kennedy well knows that few would maintain it as a spirited conservative voice in a city that lacks them.
In Murdoch's hands, the paper has built a following for its daily "Wingo" game and earned welldeserved criticism for sensationalizing hard news while playing up smarmy fluff stories about kids and lost kittens. It has also at times covered the city with greater enthusiasm than the comfortable and establishedGlobe.
Most notable, though, has been its conservative editorial stands and willingness to take on politicians under its masthead. The Herald's list of past barbs against Kennedy filled a full page in yesterday's edition. The paper probably earned his special notice when it pointed out his "pretensions and blunders" during a illconsidered and over-hyped visit to South Africa before his 1980 presidential bid. The Globe was noticably quiet.
KENNEDY may succeed in domesticating the Herald. The New York Post may not fair as well.
Despite its 500,000-plus circulation, the paper lost nearly $10 million last year. According to published reports, experts predict no buyer may come forward for the paper which employs 1300 people.
Their jobs were a price Kennedy and Hollings were willing to pay when they indulged their partisan vindictiveness and fooled their colleagues in the United States Senate--including both New York senators who have blasted the manuever--into passing their provision. Senator John Kerry denies Hollings statements that he was advised of the plan.
The provision the senators forced through--aimed as it was against a single individual--closely resembles a bill of attainder, which the Framers of the Constitution prohibited. Now it looks as if the citizens of Boston and New York, and the papers' employees, will pay the price of legislative excess.