One of the most damaging media consolidation deals in the country is quietly underway in Indiana’s fourth largest city, South Bend.
Schurz Communications is attempting to purchase three low-power TV stations from Weigel Broadcasting. Seems harmless? It’s not – this deal could set a dangerous precedent and launch a new wave of media consolidation nationwide.
Schurz is already a local media giant with four other major media properties. If the $22 million deal clears, Schurz will own four of the six national network television affiliates in the city, the only daily newspaper, the only news radio station, and the second-ranked FM radio station.
This means a single company will own a majority of the commercial news-producing outlets in the entire South Bend market. In essence, Schurz would be the Murdoch of the Indiana-Michigan border.
Schurz also owns eight TV stations, 11 radio stations and 19 daily or weekly newspapers in other medium and small markets.
But local activists and media watchdog groups are making noise. Free Press and the Media Access Project filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission asking the agency to deny the deal.
C. Lincoln Johnson, who has lived in South Bend for 35 years and is a retired University of Notre Dame professor, signed the petition after witnessing the negative impact of media consolidation in his community.
In 2006, Notre Dame’s TV station, WNDU, was sold to Gray Television .”There was no public discussion,” Johnson said. “It really heightened my awareness of consolidation and the buying and selling of stations.”
His activism in the face of another media merger was a “gut reaction.”
“Part of the reason I [signed the petition] was, if they’re going to consolidate media, my past experience and history has said this is not good,” Johnson said. He says he wants more diversity and independence in the media.
Josh Leuthold, a South Bend native, signed on to the petition because he feels the area is already lacking in diverse news sources. “Most of the local news is owned by just a few companies, Schurz Communications being the biggest one,” he said.
It was the news reporting in the aftermath of September 11 that made Leuthold think about the state of the media.
“Everybody thought it was okay that we were acting the way we were as a country,” he said. “And that’s all you got from the cable news networks, and that’s all you got from the local news networks around here, and that’s all that came out of Chicago.
“That’s all you heard anywhere until you went online. And then if you go online and you start searching for things,” Leuthold continued, “you start finding all these questions that are being asked about what we’re doing – about Guantanamo Bay, about everything.”
Despite the outcry, Schurz Communications has been fighting back, pointing to their record of public service to assuage the fears of a media monopoly. The company says the deal will create “significant public interest benefits” and will “promote localism.”
But no matter the owner’s professed intentions, a monopoly is a monopoly, and the public’s lack of choice in South Bend would be startling. Consolidation on this scale puts diverse viewpoints and independent news at risk. Nobody should have such immense media power in a community.
“There is probably no market in the country in which one entity currently has that much control over the advertising market and over the marketplace of ideas,” says the Media Access Project petition.
Again, the problem is not the type of content a media company pledges to produce; it’s the fact that a single entity would control that content, and with that control, drive out any diversity.