Gene Patterson, publisher of the St. Petersburg Times (FL), was in Washington recently to deliver a formal lecture on the media. Patterson, a long-time advocate of civil rights and generally liberal causes, was an enigma that evening. He was critical of the press for becoming more superficial (moving towards a kind of headline service ala USA Today). He decried the concentration of ownership, predicting that some day the media barons would not be chains, but would themselves be owned by some oil or other conglomerate giant.
But when it came to any kind of external accountability mechanism, Patterson demurred or denied. Formerly a champion of a newspaper-based Ombudsman to handle reader complaints and provide internal criticism for editors and reporters, Patterson is now heatedly against the idea. Let the editors take heat directly, he says, and not rely on a crutch or steam valve.
To the Fairness Doctrine, abolished after 40 years by the Reaganite Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last August, Patterson says good riddance. Apparently, it is too much damper on robust journalism to have the FCC require the tenants (the television and radio stations) to air diverse sides of controversial issues of public importance for the landlords (the viewers and listeners who own the public airwaves).
Though Congress may soon differ with the.-FCC over the Fairness Doctrine, Patterson believes it chills controversial programs. Yet this simple obligation has given the television audience other than the corporate sides to the tobacco — cancer question, the nuclear
power issue — to name two of many.
I asked Patterson what he would like to see done about the rapid concentration of media ownership in a few megacorporate hands. What would he recommend ranging from governmental antitrust and FCC policies to private sector approaches? He discounted any action from Washington regarding monopolistic or exclusionary practices by the business of the media. Instead, he placed his hopes on the growing “suburban papers” which would keep the large metropolitan dailies on their toes or else.
The Florida editor was also down on libel suits. He did not come right out against all libel suits, but his frowning words seemed to come close.
“Quality” was his favorite word of exhortation. Yet the self-censorship, induced by the need for publically held media companies to produce higher profits each quarter to satisfy Wall Street analysts, results in fewer reporters on staff and more obeisance to advertisers. The bottom line can become the masthead.
In a phrase, this publisher leaves his media criticisms to the media for remedy. Never mind that the Supreme Court has judged the First Amendment rights of the television-radio audience to be above those of the broadcasters. Never mind that the media is a business which means its consumers — readers and viewers — could have some, though not many, rights too.
Well, one Michael Moore, former editor of Michigan Voice and later, Mother Jones, is going to test the outer limits of Patterson’s zone of media self-accountability. He has started Moore’s Weekly to publish the “censored news of the week.” For a complimentary copy of the first issue, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Moore’s Weekly, P.O. Box 18135, Washington, DC 20005.