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Tuesday, September 18, 2007 - Page updated at 02:04 AM

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Guest columnist

Be concerned about Rupert Murdoch

Special to The Times

Most likely you have watched, listened to or read something today from one of Rupert Murdoch's many media outlets. Murdoch owns Fox Broadcasting Company and 35 local TV stations, 16 cable channels (including Fox News Channel), as well as MySpace and HarperCollins publishing. Murdoch's media holdings are inescapable.

And they just got bigger. With Murdoch's acquisition of Dow Jones, he will now own a No. 1 TV network, the most successful cable-news channel, two major TV stations in large markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and single stations in eight mid- to large-sized markets — along with The Wall Street Journal. The Journal adds to Murdoch's empire the nation's most successful financial newspaper, second only to USA Today in circulation.

Should we be concerned? You bet. And it's not simply because it's Rupert Murdoch — any single media owner with this much control should concern us. Television and newspapers are our main source of news and information and one person owning so many different sources of our news and information is dangerous to our democracy.

In the United States today, six corporations control most of what we see on television, one company owns more than 1,000 radio stations, and two-thirds of all independently owned newspapers have disappeared since the mid-'70s. This is an alarming trend.

We rely on the media to serve as watchdogs of government and corporations, providing an important check on political power. Diverse ownership of media promotes higher-quality journalism, as outlets compete for a larger share of the audience. We look to television and newspapers to let us know about conditions in Iraq or to help us learn about unsafe imports being sold in the marketplace. Without multiple sources of independent news and information, we will hear the same information or — worse still — the same spin.

Some might argue there are more choices than ever in television, radio and on the Internet. And while the Internet offers us an invaluable outlet for information, it hasn't always meant that we are all accessing more independent news and information. In fact, much of what we see, hear and read on the Internet comes from just a handful of news sources. According to a Pew survey, alternative Web sites and blogs, which may offer a diversity of opinions and information, are still used only by about 10 percent of Americans.

Murdoch has already said he would like The Wall Street Journal to bolster his soon-to-be-launched financial network, Fox Business Channel. Murdoch, like other media owners, takes an active role in the content his companies produce to advance his own purposes — politically and financially.

And don't think for a moment that media owners never interfere with their outlet's journalistic quality and content. Some of Murdoch's top journalists have detailed stories of him dictating a point of view.

According to press accounts, just a year after Murdoch took over the Times of London, the editor, Harold Evans, was let go for disagreements with Murdoch. In a book about his days with Murdoch, Evans talked about Murdoch eroding the Times' standards and breaking the promises he made about keeping the paper's editorial independence. Evans wrote, "In my year as editor of the Times, Murdoch broke all these guarantees."

Current government regulations do not prevent Murdoch's latest purchase. And while long-standing media-ownership rules once served as an important limit on who could own how much media in a local market, the rules have been relaxed over the years, and are about to be relaxed again. The Federal Communications Commission is currently rewriting the rules.

Murdoch's acquisition of Dow Jones' Wall Street Journal is no doubt a jewel in this hugely successful businessman's crown, but the rest of us should worry about what such media consolidation means for our nation. Our democracy depends on the ability of different voices and opinions to be heard. When one company — or in this case, one man — owns too many media outlets, the opportunities to find, learn or hear the unfettered truth get smaller.

Gene Kimmelman is vice president, federal and international affairs, for the Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.

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