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In media, Goliath edging out David

I watch KTLA’s 10 p.m. news when I can.

Not because it’s a good newscast. It isn’t, unless you think gorging on crime polishes your intellect. And not because I look forward to Hal Fishman’s stuffed-shirt commentaries or Mindy Burbano’s giddy entertainment dish. I don’t, unless dying for a laugh.

No, I watch KTLA to find out what my favorite paper, the Los Angeles Times, is writing about the next day. Listen:

“The Times reports ... “

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“A congressional official told The Times ... “

“That’s the very latest from the news desk here at the Los Angeles Times.”

From his lips to your ears.

On the screen is Ron Olsen, a KTLA veteran who is that rare specialist on a news staff of pop-in, pop-out generalists. His specialty -- the culmination of his seasoning and expertise after many years in the business -- is the front page of The Times. From his permanent, camera-ready position inside the paper’s newsroom, he covers our coverage. It’s a dirty job ...

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There’s a positive effect. By capsulizing some of our lead stories for KTLA viewers, Olsen does supply snippets -- albeit without context -- that his station could not acquire on its own. It hasn’t the talent or the inclination.

Mostly, though, he functions as an advertisement for this paper. As a Tribune stockholder, I’m thrilled. As a concerned media observer, I’m not.

Now, think about it. Like other stations in town, KTLA has no one permanently based in Sacramento, the state capital, where critical decisions about California are made and cry out for close scrutiny and smart analysis.

But it’s got a guy at The Times. Because he doesn’t have to hop a plane to get there? Yeah, maybe. But mostly because KTLA and The Times are both owned by my favorite media corporation, the beloved Tribune Co.

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Just as Los Angeles stations KTTV and KCOP are owned by News Corp., and Viacom Inc. now owns KCBS and KCAL, former competitors that not only share news staffs and news stories, but advertise each other in their newscasts. As in KCBS anchor Harold Greene crowing on KCAL about his own newscast: “Those stories and more just minutes away on CBS2 news.”

Isn’t deregulation great? And don’t we need more of it?

I mention this now because we may be at a critical crossroads on this issue. Led by its chairman, Michael K. Powell, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote June 2 to loosen rules governing media cross-ownership.

Bad idea. Terrible idea.

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Tribune and bigger media companies are cheering, but many watchdog and consumer groups are opposed, arguing correctly that most of the proposed revisions would ultimately harm the public by limiting public discourse.

The vote is expected to be 3 to 2 in favor of a rollback, on grounds that these regulations, imposed in an earlier, quainter communications era, ignore the wider spectrum of choices now available through cable and the Internet. Yet this is largely a phantom rainbow, for these new technologies have increasingly come under the control of the same media giants who would benefit most from loosened regulations.

All right, you’re yawning. It’s dry stuff. You’re as underwhelmed as when Fishman’s commentaries remind you of Beethoven’s Fifth played on a xylophone.

But this must be stopped.

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Expected to fall is a rule barring a single company from owning TV stations that reach more than 35% of U.S. households. That would rise to 45%, meaning that giant networks would be able to scoop up more stations, and in doing so potentially limit local control of programming. That centralized iron fist should worry you whether you’re liberal or conservative or someone in between.

Immediately benefiting would be Viacom (owner of CBS, MTV and UPN) and News Corp. (owner of Fox and its minions). Although mergers have left them above the 35% limit, they have waivers while the FCC reconsiders that cap.

Another reported proposal would allow cross-ownership involving newspapers and broadcast stations (as in Tribune owning The Times and KTLA because it, too, has an FCC waiver, as does News Corp. to own the New York Post) in all but the smallest of markets.

In addition, another reported proposal would allow a company to own more than one station in a market, as Viacom and News Corp. do here, and up to three in the nation’s largest markets. That means, presumably, that Tribune would be able to own not only The Times and KTLA but two additional TV stations in Los Angeles, raising the prospect of Olsen, our man in the newsroom, speaking to L.A. from a trio of stations instead of just one.

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If these proposals come through, as anticipated, a door will swing open to allow more unhealthy consolidation, and the L.A. duopolies cited above would be in stone, as would be an NBC triopoly under a waiver it has here to own KNBC and Spanish-language Telemundo and KWHY.

Meaning more media control in fewer hands. Meaning more cross-promotion. Meaning less diversity. Meaning fewer independent voices in news and entertainment. Meaning less competition and fewer options for information.

It’s true that what we have now is often unreliable, a fact underlined by tag-along TV’s generally feckless, ever-manipulated, go-with-the-flow, yassah-Mr. President coverage of the war in Iraq and its aftermath. Everyone would profit if the quality of today’s journalism were higher.

Diverse media, however imperfect, are essential to us all, however.

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If Powell and his allies hold sway on these proposed revisions, America will find itself walking a perilous high wire from which its democracy may someday topple. This is not hysteria, it’s what may happen.

Can we in the media be counted on to act responsibly with so many masters to serve?

Another daily I subscribe to is the Ventura County Star, a paper with many good qualities. Curiously, though, it runs news stories and columns about cable’s Home & Garden Television, in addition to giving special prominence to HGTV and Food Network programs in its TV highlights on a daily basis. If you’re wondering why, one possibility is that HGTV and the Food Network are distributed by E.W. Scripps Co., the same company that publishes the Ventura County Star.

Meanwhile, be sure and catch the best of the Los Angeles Times on KTLA.

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Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted at howard.rosenberg@latimes.com


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