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Originally published Friday, December 8, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

America's democracy at risk

Almost all democracies the world has seen have died within 300 years of their founding. Most implode from within. At 230-some years, America...

Special to The Times

Almost all democracies the world has seen have died within 300 years of their founding.

Most implode from within.

At 230-some years, America has moved dangerously close to the fail-safe line for our survival.

We are in the later stages of one of the most important battles that will determine whether we survive.

It is the battle that pits democracy against the powerful. The powerful, who seek to co-opt our free press, control the news, and control the access to news, journalism and information.

It is a battle our country has fought before, but never with today's consequences.

It is a battle Thomas Jefferson clearly understood when he wrote that he "foresaw the days American democracy would have to fight the rapacious capitalists."

Media ownership hearing


On Monday, in Nashville, Tenn., the Federal Communications Commission is holding the second of six hearings on rules governing media ownership. Among issues under review is a ban on cross-media ownership. The hearing can be heard live, beginning at 11 a.m., at www.fcc.gov, where additional details about the session can also be found.

For more information about media consolidation, go to: www.freepress.org; www.fcc.gov; www.reclaimthemedia.org; www.stopbigmedia.com; www.mediaaccess.org or www.consumersunion.org

Good journalism, watchdog journalism, local journalism: These are the essential oxygen of self-government.

From the beginning of our democracy, marked by the ill-fated Sedition Act, the powerful — be they political, economic or ideological — have always followed their natural tendency to protect themselves and to solidify their power by stifling, intimidating, chilling and, now, consolidating both the creation of our news and access to it.

Through more than 200 years, our free press has ultimately withstood every attack, enabling our democracy to grow from a handful of privileged white landowners to the most egalitarian democracy the world has seen.

That wondrous document — the U.S. Constitution — gave us our judiciary and our Fourth Estate, as two legs of our four-legged constitutional stool. The legs were intended to provide the checks and balances so self-government could be perpetuated and so all citizens could be protected from the money-changers and powerful.

Frighteningly, the battlefield for democracy has tilted decidedly away from the people, as the rapacious capitalists have been strengthened with a new and ominous weapon — that weapon is newspaper and media consolidation, and the control of the information distribution channels.

Suddenly, our constitutional stool has lost one of its four legs and is teetering precipitously.

During the past 30 years, America has seen an unprecedented concentration of power and economic control.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the takeover of our journalistic, creative, literary, news and media functions.

The takeover began in earnest in the '70s, when absentee corporate owners began gobbling up the nation's newspapers. By the mid-'90s, the capitalists had won the newspaper battle, controlling about 85 percent of America's daily newspapers — leaving in their wake massive journalism disinvestment, which has ended most of our independent and watchdog journalism.

We are fast losing the "localism" that is essential to our sense of community and self-government.

How can we possibly control and fight the faceless, absentee money-changers as long as they can prevent us from knowing what they are doing?

Once the nation's newsrooms were tamed, like a blight of hungry locusts, the rapacious capitalists moved on to the next fertile field — their takeover of the nation's television and radio airwaves.

They used their obscene economic power and secretive insider influence to see that the Telecommunications Law of 1996 was enacted, a law that would be their Trojan horse to begin the takeover of our airwaves.

Today, they control both the news, which is still primarily generated from newspapers, and the multiple electronic distribution channels, which, for the most part, simply reuse the news and information produced by newspapers.

The mission of the Federal Communications Commission is localism, public service and diversity. Unfortunately, the majority that controls the FCC has lost its way.

The two exceptions are Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. With patriots like them, there is hope that the agency will get its groove back, and localism, public service and diversity will again become paramount.

Next Steps:

• We need to keep all the current FCC rules in place, including the cross-ownership ban.

• We need to reinstitute the FCC regulations and controls that have been cast aside in recent years.

• We need to insist on localism.

• We need to insist on public service — they are our airwaves.

• We need to insist on diversity — diversity of thought and diversity of ownership.

• We need new legislation, controlling and limiting in some fashion the ownership of newspapers.

About 50 years ago, journalist Walter Lippmann said he was secure in his belief that American democracy would endure precisely because:

"... there is, I believe, a fundamental reason why the American press is strong enough to remain free. That reason is that the American newspapers, large and small, and without exception, belong to a town, a city, at the most to a region."

The secret of a truly free press, he said, is "that it should consist of many newspapers decentralized in their ownership and their management, and dependent for their support upon the communities where they are written, where they are edited and where they are read."

Lippmann concluded by saying, "There is safety in numbers, and in diversity, and in being spread out, and in having deep roots in many places. Only in variety is there freedom."

Today's absentee newspaper ownership and media concentration are Walter Lippmann's worst nightmare.

Fortunately, this is still a democracy.

Even if the concentrated and controlled mainstream media won't tell the story, we still get to speak out and be heard by those whom we elect.

The hour is very late, but there is still time to save our free press and our democracy.

Welcome to the battle.

Frank A. Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, was co-introducer and moderator of the Nov. 30 Federal Communications Commission field hearing in Seattle on rules governing media ownership. This column is adapted from his opening remarks.

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