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Originally published April 23, 2009 at 5:48 PM | Page modified April 23, 2009 at 8:40 PM

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Ryan Blethen / The Democracy Papers

Making newspapers accountable to their communities, not distant investors

A few congressmen squandered the opportunity at a hearing Wednesday to discuss how to save professional journalism and instead engaged in newspaper bashing. Seattle Times associate Publisher Ryan Blethen says they missed the point. He writes, "The public-ownership model is disintegrating. We have a chance to put newspapers and professional journalism back in stewardship of smaller entities that care about community."

Seattle Times editorial columnist

The congressional hearing on newspapers was destined to be a disjointed affair. How could it have been otherwise when a mostly press-hostile subcommittee is asked to consider a misguided plea from two media giants to relax antitrust rules.

The disdain the congressmen sitting on the subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary felt for newspapers was on full display at Tuesday's hearing, which is too bad. The elected officials had a chance to set the tone for a national discussion about the future of professional journalism. Instead, the hearing devolved into another unproductive newspaper bashing.

An excellent panel with a publisher, journalist, free-press advocate and academic made the hearing worth watching.

The condemnation was a two party affair. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex, got it going with the well-worn and increasingly ridiculous complaint about the "liberal media."

Democrats, not wanting to be outdone by the fine gentleman from Texas, had Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ramble on almost incoherently about newspapers asking for a handout, and his 1996 arrest outside the Detroit newspapers. Apparently, the papers' editors would not meet with Conyers so he pondered aloud why he should now help them.

The hearing made me pine for the days of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and his disjointed soliloquies at Commerce Committee hearings.

Conyers and most of his colleagues missed the point of the hearing.

"Newspapers remind me about automobile corporations," Conyers said. "You never hear from them until they are on the verge of disaster. All of sudden they need help and they need a lot of help and they need it fast."

The newspaper industry was not asking for a bailout. It only happened because two media giants, Hearst and MediaNews, asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for relief under newspaper antitrust rules. Presumably, they would apply any changes in antitrust rules to the Bay Area, which the two companies dominate.

Pelosi could have used the request as an opportunity to tout the importance of an independent press, which is in line with the direction the Department of Justice is going. She did not.

Fortunately, that is exactly what Carl Shapiro, a deputy assistant attorney general from the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, told the subcommittee.

"We do not believe any additional exemptions for newspapers are needed," Shapiro said.

He elaborated further saying that justice does not believe exemptions to media-consolidation rules would work and that new business models can happen without triggering antitrust issues.

He is right.

The media conglomerates that dominate the newspaper industry do not need antitrust relief for their papers to thrive. A major component to the ills battering the newspaper industry is the fact that a handful of big companies own most of the nation's newspapers.

Newspapers should be accountable to the communities they serve and not to Wall Street or distant corporations thousands of miles away.

The public-ownership model is disintegrating. That is what Congress must understand. We have a chance to put newspapers and professional journalism back in stewardship of smaller entities that care about community.

A national discussion was not started or helped by this hearing. A great opportunity and a mostly wise panel was wasted on congressmen who either do not care about the importance of the press or, worse, do not know. Hopefully, the adults show up for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing about the future of newspapers on May 6.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is rblethen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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