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Media malice

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It's bad enough that North Carolina has to claim Jesse Helms and Elizabeth Dole; now add to the rogues' gallery Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin.

Born in Waxhaw, this UNC and Duke alum wants to fast-track relaxing media ownership rules so that a company could own TV and radio stations—and a newspaper—in the same market. Currently, companies can own up to two TV and eight radio stations—but no newspapers—depending on market size. (There are a few exceptions of companies that own broadcast stations and print; they were grandfathered under old rules.)

And Martin wants it done by the end of December.

Coincidentally, this longtime President Bush acolyte wants to ram through this change 11 months before a presidential election in which the Republicans are scrambling for unity, and as the president and his fellow hawks are losing their public relations battle on the Iraq war. Putting politics above policy, Martin has decided to squelch the 3 million comments the FCC has received opposing the proposed rule, and to ignore the will of thousands of people who attended FCC hearings in 2003 and 2004 to decry the giveaway to the nation's media behemoths.

If the commission approves Martin's scheme, Triangle readers and viewers could watch as the number of news sources dwindles to a single media voice: consolidation über alles. For example, Capitol Broadcasting Company, which owns several radio, satellite and TV stations, including WRAL, in this market, could buy The News & Observer, and perhaps the rest of McClatchy's media clutch in the state.

It's not that media consumers currently receive much content variety from the herdbound mainstream news sources: Among the top headlines for Oct. 22 on WRAL's Web site: "State Fair Shatters Attendance Record." On the N&O's site: "Fair Attendance Breaks Record." If media giants are allowed to further monopolize, there's more at risk than a mere shading in verb usage: fewer stories, fewer sources and more groupthink, the results of which we saw as the media refused to challenge the Bush administration on the war, the PATRIOT Act and other pernicious presidential pronouncements. Or worse: There may be no substantive news, only vapid dispatches from a world that turns on the Britney-Lindsay-Paris axis.

This week, we have a Q&A with a N.C. State graduate student who recently traveled to Cuba. I visited that country in 2000 and noticed that the TV content consisted largely of Fidel Castro's speeches. Martin's proposed rules won't plunge America into a dictatorship, but with more consolidation, the media begins to resemble Wal-Mart: a place for the administration's one-stop shopping, where Bush propaganda videos disguised as broadcast news, White House-paid columnists planted in newspapers and tricks we haven't seen yet are orchestrated.

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