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Friday, September 14, 2007 - Page updated at 05:55 PM

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James Vesely / Times editorial page editor

Fasten your seat belts: full-speed media ahead

The American press is often reluctant to report on itself, but the overwhelming trends in media consolidation and in fragile instruments of democracy such as low-power radio lead these opinion pages to a series of editorials and essays titled "The Democracy Papers."

The media are much talked about but rarely read about in the country's newspapers. Yet, the press — a better word than "media" — is the coaxial cable that runs through the heart of the country and keeps us in touch with each other.

That voice and its counterpart, the public ear, have evolved into a cacophony of sounds and images, exactly what the Federal Communications Commission warned of when it first established government as the umpire of the nation's airwaves. The umpires are long gone from the world of blogging, podcasting, text messaging, 24/7 news cycles and community channels. The thud on the front porch that is the newspaper at 5:30 a.m. is a delivery system of the 19th century, now sophisticated enough to give near-precise directions for every paper sent flying through the dawn.

But delivery is not message and message is not the same as content. The press and democracy are one interlocking tree and root system, but its branches are spreading and the cost of keeping single voices independent and in the sunlight is becoming high.

The series begins today with an essay from FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps, who begins the narrative with an important government meeting, closed to the media, that produced a 5,000-word document that is known as the U.S. Constitution.

Since that storybook time, the role of the media in America has been embellished by technology, but its function should — and must — stay the same.

In the coming weeks, we will test that theory, that a free press is waning in America and with it the strength of our democracy. Writers on media consolidation, the music industry, the role of the press as unofficial signatory to democratic government, and the future of broadcast and print will be examined in editorials and guest essays.

Monday's opinion pages will continue the examination of the role of the FCC with an editorial about the commission's failures, and an essay by Edwin C. Baker, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Media Concentration: Why Ownership Matters."

The Seattle Times' editorial pages will have reports on how democracy fares with or without a free press in Uganda, China and Russia. We will examine how journalism is taught at the college level and look back at the scoops and blunders of Northwest journalism in the years of Seattle's booms and busts.

Finally, the series will examine open government in our state. A new oversight committee is supposed to do just that — yet the editors of broadcast and print news all over Washington understand government's innate and almost unconscious resolve to protect itself from critical news stories.

The press's mutual dependence on government, big-league sports, business interests and organized labor for news and information has been disrupted — often for the good — by the individual journalist, a blogger with a keypad. We will profile some of them and try to understand their frustrations and anger with America's press.

It's a big swoop and it will take us several months to try to tell this story and shape some opinions about it. But it begins now.

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at

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