To Big Media: Local is as Local Does

You go down to the tree and turn right. Turn left at the rock. About a quarter mile down you'll see an old barn....

These are directions Connecticut style. If you're from around here, you get it. Forget about the satellite.

I have a great-uncle who gives these directions and is about as local as they come. He knows every rock, every tree, every person in his town. He or his wife will give you the low-down on the celebrity weekenders, too.

He'll tell you the last time an American chestnut attempted to live in this soil and how it died. He'll walk you through a barn full of lumber acquired from ancestral barns or renovated public buildings. He has filled houses with the furniture he has built from such wood. He can tell you how the out-of-towners paved a road through a graveyard and some New Yorkers then paved their patio with the gravestones. He'll tell you whose nursing a martini while the leg of his patio chair is grinding into the I of our family name. He knows this place.

He's got the news before you can write about it, let alone read it. He saw it coming.

I thought of Uncle Gus last week when I read about Chicago millionaire Sam Zell's acquisition of the Hartford Courant. The media giant Tribune Company, which controls the Hartford Courant and television stations WTIC-TV 61 (Fox) and WTXX-TV 20 (the CW), has accepted a purchase offer from Chicago real estate magnate. Completion of the sale is contingent on the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) allowing the Tribune to defy a longstanding legal ban against owning a newspaper and television stations in a single town, according to would like to see Zell forced to sell his television holdings--preferably handing them over to local owners in their respective markets.

Down here on the ground where all the living's done, Zell doesn't know the lefts from the rights that get us home. Local is as local does. Big business media mergers and the like have no relevance here because we get the news at the kitchen table or at the market or over the phone. Up there, though, where the box store-style news magnates rub elbows with FCC officials as they rub the legs of their patio chairs into our good name, it's another story. Where a big business kinda guy can own a baseball team, a bunch of newspapers, and a few TV channels can convince the FCC to waive its rules about cross ownership of media outlets is a place where there exists a serious threat to our access to a variety of viewpoints about matters that are acted upon at a national level. Thus Zell the concrete giant becomes an opinion maker, a national policy maker, a dangerously powerful man.

Lost on Sam Zell and the creators of boxed news are people like my uncle. Our newspapers are their trading cards. They don't necessarily see our stories for the people they represent. We are invisible.

My uncle was the primary source of one of my early news stories about my Uncle Laurence, a submariner during WWII. There were the facts and figures of my uncles' stories, but also there was the truth: the quiet dignity, the sorrow, the privacy, and the pride. The story could not be accurate if I could not capture these things in a 12-inch feature about a young man who joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor out of love for his small and good world, out of a youthful belief that you fight for what you believe in--freedom to think, to live, and to try your best--to your own death. We who write already have the facts and the figures; we who live here seek the truth.

Does Zell get that? The FCC? I've sat at the kitchen table long enough to know that the truth told there is stronger, more steadfast, than the mush and goo of the networks, which is to say of the government. If Zell gets that waiver, we'll find a way around him and it. We'll figure it out at the kitchen table.

Meanwhile, though, On Wednesday, April 25, you can watch Buying the War with Bill Moyers broadcast live on your local PBS station. In Buying the War, Moyers asks what's happened to the press's role as a skeptical "watchdog" on government power. He profiles some of the journalists who did dare to ask tough questions.