Thursday, November 29, 2007

7 years? 5 years? 29 months?

No, I haven't forgotten about Conrad Black's upcoming sentencing for fraud, which was supposed to be the original focus of this blog. It's just that the whole FCC thing kinda popped up there and took precedence for awhile. But the old Google news alert on Tubby has heated up again with the release of his pre-sentence report. According to a report in the Toronto Star, the probation officer who interviewed Black has recommended noted that the amount that Hollinger shareholders were defrauded was ONLY $6.1 million, which should equate to a sentence of seven years. The Canadian Press interviewed lawyers in the case, and from what they say it's good news for Lord Himself, who might even get off with only five years in the slammer.

Andrew Frey, the New York lawyer handling Mr. Black's appeal, said Wednesday he was encouraged by the fact that the pre-sentence investigation report didn't back up “the government's insane request for a massive sentence.” Prosecutors have asked for Mr. Black to serve between 24 and 30 years. While Mr. Frey wouldn't discuss the range of sentencing range the defence would find appropriate, he said he hopes the judge “can use some common sense here and hopefully appreciate that this is not the crime of century — even though it's a highly celebrated case — and hopefully show some common sense in devising an appropriate sentence.”

The Globe suggests Black's co-defendants might even get off with house arrest. According to a report in the Canadian Press, judge Amy St. Eve has been inundated with letters written on Black's behalf that portray him as . . . almost human. "Black's lawyers also argued his constant pronouncements of victory throughout the trial - including called the four Jewish prosecutors 'Nazis' - was a show of optimism, not arrogance, his lawyer said." So deep is Black's "reservoir of kindness," according to his lawyers, that he should even get off with the same 29-month sentence agreed to by David Radler, Black's former business partners and the prosecution's star witness. Oy, vey! Stay tuned as the rhetoric is bound to increase by sentencing on Dec. 10.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Only the Big to get Bigger?

Having escaped Seattle with his scalp -- although the jeers and catcalls from last Friday's sixth and final public meeting on cross-ownership rule changes must still be ringing in his ears -- FCC chair Kevin Martin finally unveiled the extent of his proposed changes yesterday. Under his plan, noted Editor & Publisher, only newspapers in the 20 largest television markets would be allowed to hold station licences.

The rewrite Martin is proposing is, as his own office said in its announce-ment "notably more conservative in approach" than the sweeping cross-ownership rule change it proposed in 2003. That rule change was overturned by an appeals court that nevertheless endorsed the general idea that newspapers could own broadcast in their markets. Martin's rule would allow dailies only in the top 20 Nielsen Designated Market Areas (DMAs), and would allow a paper to own either one TV station or one radio station.

The drive by media activists to preserve local news diversity apparently had some impact on the extent of the proposed changes, as newspapers would have to show that also owning a broadcast outlet would "increase the amount of local news in the market." As a result, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) expressed disappointment at the "extremely limited" change to what it called "the onerous, decades-old" cross-ownership ban. Small-market publishers also cricitized the limited extent of the change. Martin claimed in a New York Times op-ed piece on Tuesday that the financial viability of the newspaper industry is at stake. "If we don't act to improve the health of the newspaper industry, we will see newspapers wither and die," Martin wrote. "Without newspapers, we would be less informed about our communities and have fewer outlets for the expression of independent thinking and a diversity of viewpoints."

In that case, noted small-town publisher Sidney H. "Skip" Bliss of the 21,000-circulation Janesville, Wisc. Gazette, only dailies in the largest U.S. cities will see any relief. "To say that, and then to backtrack and say, well, there's only 20 newspapers that would see this relief when he seems to be talking about the whole newspaper business, well, it's really hard to understand."

Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), vowed to continue his plan to block the changes, claiming Martin's proposed relaxation of the rules is based on a faulty assumption. "He has yet to make the case for why any further media consolidation is necessary,"said Dorgan."Indeed, he is relying on an assumption that newspapers are doomed and that cross-ownership is necessary to save them. I believe this is not the case."

The targeted nature of the proposal further bolsters suspicions that it is intended to smooth the sale of the Chicago Tribune chain, which since buying up the Los Angeles Times chain has held waivers for several cross-ownerships nation-wide. Tribune has been granted temporary waivers pending the FCC's review of ther rules, but needs an answer by year's end. Martin's bid to ram through the change carries a Dec. 18 end date, which dovetails nicely with the Tribune sale, noted Radio Online.

In May, fourteen lawmakers from Illinois asked Martin to end the cross-ownership ban, so that Tribune could move forward with its bid to go private. The group, including Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and House Reps. Rahm Emanuel (IL-5) and Dennis Hastert (R-IL), encouraged the FCC to act on Sam Zell's $8.2 billion bid "expeditiously and to avoid administrative delay."

Monday, November 5, 2007

Battle of Seattle Redux?

Fittingly, the Final Battle in this round of the media ownership war will be held in the Pacific Northwest. I say "fittingly" because it was there that the 1999 Battle of Seattle galvanized opposition to globalization and led to the rise of IndyMedia. The FCC has announced that its last public hearing on changes to media ownership rules will be held in Seattle on Friday. In so doing, it gave exactly ONE WEEK'S NOTICE of the hearings. Nonetheless, opponents of its plan to lift the long-standing ban on cross-ownership of newspapers and television stations in the same city should be out in force. The short notice did not go unnoticed by the Seattle Times or the Democratic members who comprise a minority on the FCC.

The announcement drew immediate fire from opponents of the proposals, who charged the short notice is part of a plan by the commission's Republican majority to short-circuit public involvement and push major changes through before Christmas. "It shows there is a preordained outcome," FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, the two Democrats on the five-member board, said in a statement.

Times publisher Frank Blethen has been an outspoken critic of media ownershiop concentration, which is highly unusual for a newspaper owner. The American Journalism Review profiled him a few years back as "The Gadfly." Blethen was in the forefront of opposition to the FCC's 2003 attempt to roll back the cross-ownership ban, noted AJR.

Blethen says the public finally is getting fed up with this cynical media environment, which puts the news consumer dead last in the pecking order. "There's this level of arrogance that comes when these companies get so big, and so out of touch," he says. "I think that's important because they keep throwing fuel on the fire. They can't help themselves."
This should be interesting.