Thursday, September 22, 2005

SUSIE MADRAK AT SUBURBAN GUERRILLA has an important post about freedom of the press in which she connects Dan Rather's recent comments about the "climate of fear" pervading newsrooms these days to a law passed during the Nixon administration called the Newspaper Preservation Act, discussed at length in the November/December 1991 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Passed in 1970, the NPA creates an antitrust exemption for newspaper joint operating agreements (JOAs), thus allowing publishers of competing papers to merge their business operations if one paper is "failing." The way the act was passed itself tells much of the story. After the Nixon administration's Justice Department cane out against the bill, Richard Berlin, president of the Heart chain, wrote a pair of famous letters to Nixon and his antitrust chief, the late Richard McLaren.

Berlin told Nixon that Hearst and "many other important publishers and friends of your administration" were involved in JOAs and "look to you for assistance." Less subtly he told McLaren, with a copy to Nixon, that "those of us who strongly support the present administration in the last election" were the most concerned by failure to pass the bill, and that "those newspapers should, at the very least, receive a most friendly consideration."

This they did, as the administration reversed itself and the bill passed. In the 1972 election Nixon then enjoyed, as Ben Bagdikian has pointed out, the highest percentage of newspaper endorsements of any candidate in modern times -- thanks to 100 percent support by papers in the Hearst, Cox, and Scripps-Howard chains, major beneficiaries of the NPA. Bagdikian also foundthat in the months before the election, papers endorsing Nixon showed "a much higher tendency to suppress damaging Watergate stories" than papers supporting his opponent or making no endorsement.

The Newspaper Preservation Act itself is hard to square with First Amendment values. The economic point of a JOA is to let the two publishers set their prices jointly and thus maximize their revenues -- at the expense not only of advertisers and readers, but also of weeklies, suburban papers, and other competing media. Congress should not be intervening in the market to favor some media players over others. Nor should it be propping up "failing" papers against potential new entrants or new owners.

Beyond that, while JOAs probably have "preserved" some papers, it's likely that they kill more competition, and more papers, than they save. The business of getting the U.S. attorney general to aprove a new JOA has become a racket of manufactured "failure." These cynical maneuvers reached their nadir in Detroit, where the Gannett and Knight-Ridder chains plunged their previously profitable Detroit News and Detroit Free Press into a ruinous price war in the belief, as the administrative law judge found, that "failure too had its reward" -- a belief borne out when Attorney General Edwin Meese overruled the judge and approved the JOA.

Further, it's increasingly clear that JOAs perversely produce the single-paper monopolies they are supposed to prevent. The JOA endgame, in which the owner of the weaker paper gets paid to kill it off, has rubbed out Newhouse's St. Louis Globe-Democrat and Cox's Miami News. The same fate now stalks Hearst's San Francisco Examiner and probably awaits, after a decent interval, Gannett's Detroit News -- which was declared "dominant" for the purpose of gaining the JOA that now is doing it in.

Chilling stuff.

Hat tip to Avedon Carol.

No comments: