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Defender Prepares Its New Offense/Laughing in the Face of Diversity/News Bites

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Defender Prepares Its New Offense

Who's the new editor of the Defender? I asked Tom Picou. "I am," he said. "President, chairman, CEO, and I'm the editor. At least for the first year. To be sure I get things on track."

Last May the future of the Chicago Defender, five years after the death of the owner, John Sengstacke, finally looked settled. If all went well, Picou, Sengstacke's nephew by marriage, would take over Sengstacke Enterprises in July.

Didn't happen. All trustees, descendants, beneficiaries, judges, lawyers, accountants, and tax collectors who had their teeth in the Defender could not be so quickly subdued. Not until this week, close to six years after his uncle died, could Picou walk into the Defender building on South Michigan as the boss. "I'm not going to change the paper for three or four weeks," he told me, but then he means to turn it upside down. Is the Defender now the place for a sharp young reporter to submit an application? "Not at this point. Not yet. Certainly it will be after the first 12 months. We have a lot of things we have to make up [first]. You don't eliminate your deterioration overnight."

Picou said he had in mind the years the Defender has spent staggering along in trusteeship since Sengstacke's death in 1997, but the Defender's been failing for decades. In the glory years Pullman porters took it south with them, and its message of opportunity helped inspire a vast migration. But circulation dwindled from 250,000 to 20,000, and for that handful reading it fell somewhere between a habit and a chore.

Picou guesses the average Defender reader is over 55 years old. "We're going to specifically target a segment of the market," he said. "We're going to attract a much younger readership." He didn't tell me exactly how he would do this, but he said, "We're going to put into place a number of outreach programs to involve the community."

Running those programs will be the new publisher's job. He's David Milliner, a marketing executive who was once a Defender copyboy and later John Sengstacke's assistant. The new chief financial officer is Kurt Cherry, an investment banker. In an earlier chapter of the Defender interregnum, Cherry was the one trying to buy the paper, and Milliner was going to become his publisher. But Cherry's financing collapsed, and in 2001 Picou stepped up with his own bid and invited both men to throw in with him.

Picou, who went to work for the Defender as a teenager, rose from baseball writer to editor to president of Sengstacke Enterprises before leaving the company in 1984 because he couldn't put up with the boss. "You couldn't win if John Sengstacke said, 'I've made up my mind,'" Picou once told me. Picou moved to Florida, where he ran a couple of papers, but in 1996 Sengstacke brought him back as a consultant to the company's three weeklies: Detroit's Chronicle, Pittsburgh's Courier, and Memphis's Tri-State Defender.

Today the president of Sengstacke Enterprises is John Sengstacke's son Robert, who grew up with Picou and considers him a brother. Robert, a professional photographer, had his own rocky relationship with John, longing for greater responsibilities than his father would ever give him. "My father did not see anyone capable of operating the Defender but himself," Robert Sengstacke once told me. "If I have any regrets, it's not so much not running the Defender but not recognizing the kind of man dad was and taking off sooner."

Robert Sengstacke's daughter Myiti idolized her grandfather. It was Myiti, then 25, who promised him on his deathbed to keep the Defender in the family, then somehow prevented the trustees he'd left his newspapers with from selling them to settle his estate. Early on she found a buyer of her own, a Detroit businessman who wanted the Chronicle and said she could run the Defender and her father and Picou the other two papers. That was another deal that fell through, and when it did she blamed her father for not supporting it. They made a peace, and today Myiti Sengstacke can say she kept her promise.

When Picou finally decided to go after the Defender, I asked why he hadn't acted earlier, he being the only member of the family with the expertise to take over. One big reason, he said, was the family squabbling. "The concentration should have been on securing the company. You can always dicker over control later."

Myiti Sengstacke will be Picou's "administrative assistant." To be groomed for bigger things? "Yes," he said.

Though the four papers nominally belong to Sengstacke Enterprises, the company that now controls them is Picou's Real Times Inc. Outside of Sengstacke Enterprises is a fifth Real Times paper, the Front Page in Detroit. This weekly was started in 2000 by Picou's pal Sam Logan Jr., who'd been publisher of the Chronicle and had turned it into the company's cash cow, but quit after failing to be named president of Sengstacke Enterprises. "Sam Logan has come back to the Chronicle," said Picou. "We have two papers in Detroit now, each paper publishing once a week." Down the road, he says, the Chronicle and Front Page will merge.

I asked him who he was assigning to write the big story in Wednesday's Defender announcing the new management. He didn't want to say, but allowed that it wouldn't be anyone on staff.

Laughing in the Face of Diversity

If the Civil War were being fought now, the south would argue that a tyrannical central authority was trying to impose a single rigid vision of race relations on 11 locally based and admirably diverse experiments in paternalism. Whatever anyone is up to these days, only a fool denies that diversity is the watchword. The president yields to no one in his passion for diversity in education as he tries to dismantle a University of Michigan admissions plan that produces it. And media conglomerates gulp down independent properties while swearing that the marketplace of opinion will flourish as a result.

"Thus," spake Tribune Company, "allowing newspapers to speak in a broadcast environment does not limit the number of voices but adds to it. It permits a new voice to use the broadcast media--a voice to which many television viewers and radio listeners do not have access today."

I'm quoting from the 32-page statement filed by the Tribune Company with the Federal Communications Commission on January 2 arguing for abolition of the federal "Newspaper Rule." That's the rule prohibiting one company from owning both a newspaper and a TV station in the same market. "The very reason for the Newspaper Rule is to protect against the same viewpoint, the same message, the same content, being expressed in two local media," the Tribune Company accurately acknowledged, then turned this logic on its head. "The Newspaper Rule perversely seeks to promote diversity by censoring it--by stopping a newspaper from speaking on commonly owned radio or television stations in local markets."

Thanks to grandfathering, the Tribune Company owns the WGN radio and TV stations as well as Chicago's largest newspaper. Thanks to recent acquisitions, this expansionist company also owns TV stations and newspapers in New York, Los Angeles, and Hartford. If the Newspaper Rule isn't nullified, it will have to kiss off some of these assets. Instead it wants to buy more, especially a second TV station in Chicago.

In its editorials the Tribune has lined up squarely behind its corporate parent's business interests--this over an issue vastly more significant and more obscure than that outfield screen at Wrigley Field. On July 31, 2001, a Tribune editorial praised the new FCC chairman, Michael Powell, for challenging the rules against media cross-ownership. "The regulations are outmoded," the Tribune declared. "Powell believes the market and the spirit of innovation will achieve that diversity of views [supposedly protected by the old rules]. He's absolutely right.

"Is there a corporate interest here? You bet. This newspaper is owned by Tribune Co., which owns newspapers and TV stations in some of the same markets. The cross-ownership rules have restricted some of the innovations the company seeks to make in its TV, radio and newspaper outlets and could eventually force it to sell some of them.

"There is a corporate interest. But there is a public interest, as well. The public is not served when the government is determining--limiting--who can speak via the airwaves and in print."

Though the idea that when the big get bigger the people get more blessed might strike you as counterintuitive, the Tribune Company makes a vigorous argument in its recent FCC filing that the regulatory changes it favors would do the public no harm. Unfortunately, the newspaper has called precious little attention to this major public-policy debate that's now being waged, and none that I can see to the fact that the public can weigh in, though time is running out. Bruce Dold, who runs the Tribune editorial page, tells me the 2001 editorial I quoted above was his page's most recent word on the subject. A skeptical January 15 column on deregulation--written by Brian Lowry of the sister Los Angeles Times, which has more aggressively covered the subject--was posted on the Tribune Web site, but it didn't appear in the newspaper.

This Monday, William Safire wrote a derisive column in the New York Times mocking the media empires that lust for the deregulation they don't cover. It wasn't the first time a Times writer had tried to puncture the silence. Earlier this month the Times ran an op-ed piece on the subject by two prominent naysayers, Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Without much notice," they warned, "the federal government is moving toward the most sweeping change ever in the rules that govern ownership of the American news media....The FCC argues that technologies like the Internet offer Americans access to more information than ever and thus worries about monopolies are unfounded. But studies also show that most Americans receive their news from a handful of outlets. Beyond this, much of what appears on the Internet is repackaged from those outlets. The number of operations that gather original news is small and now may become smaller."

Last Thursday an informal public hearing on media ownership was held at Columbia University's law school. You wouldn't expect the Tribune to cover such an event, however significant, in another city, and it didn't. But perhaps it will send a reporter to the hearing some media activists are now trying to organize in Chicago. The Reuters account of the Columbia hearing described a shift in the winds that must trouble the Tribune Company--a "slowly germinating public interest" that might not change what the FCC eventually does but "is likely to slow the review process and quiet accusations of back room dealings between the FCC and the powerful interests it regulates." Powell showed up, and his new tone was striking. No longer the hard charger for deregulation, he's now framing it as something being forced on the FCC.

"Courts have become far more skeptical of FCC rationales for imposing limits on media ownership," Powell pleaded. "In the last two years, four of our ownership rules were challenged in court, and each time the rule was overturned. The court told us, in no uncertain terms, that the legal standard for reviewing the broadcast ownership rules is a rigorous one. Either we produce evidence that a rule is still necessary, or it must be eliminated."

Powell asked for help to turn the tide. "We are working hard to make sure that the broadcast ownership rules are not completely swept away by the hand of the court," he said. "Talk, as they say, is cheap....Give us something we can actually use to defend ownership rules. Help us understand this area, and work with us to develop ownership policies that truly serve the American public. There is still time to file comments, and I urge all of you to do so."

If you want to take the chairman up on that invitation, go to www.fcc.gov/ownership, where you can read some background and then follow a link to the electronic comment form. Or try www.chicagomediawatch.org or www.democraticmedia.org--the Web sites of grassroots organizations that oppose deregulation and will relay whatever you have to say to the FCC. The deadline for comment is February 3.

But before sounding off, you might want to read and reflect on the arguments for deregulation. At www.fcc.gov/ownership click on "search" and then "search for filed comments." At "proceeding" type 02-277, and at "filed on behalf of" type the name of the corporation or individual whose views you're curious about.

I was curious about Clear Channel Communications. Clear Channel, as well as Infinity Broadcasting (an arm of Viacom), benefited extraordinarily when the FCC lightened up on radio in 1996. At the time the two companies--the nation's biggest radio chains--owned about 120 stations. Now Clear Channel alone owns more than 1,200 stations, 6 of them in Chicago, and Infinity some 180 stations, 7 in Chicago. Clear Channel wants the FCC to abolish the few limits that still exist, and in its filing it as much as dares the FCC to do anything but deregulate.

Clear Channel calls the federal law passed in 1996 a "one-way street to deregulation" and tells the FCC that it has no choice but to change its rules: justifying them is "a burden the Commission cannot meet."

It's easy to be appalled by radio today, and a lot of people are. "For the most compelling warning of what might be to come, look no farther than radio, where the FCC virtually abandoned regulatory safeguards in the 1990s," Brian Lowry wrote in his LA Times piece. "Subsequent abuse of 'marketplace solutions' led to a single company, Clear Channel Communications, voraciously swallowing competitors--its Blob-like powers of absorption helping fuel the switch to nationally syndicated hosts and formats at the expense of local voices and, yes, diversity." Safire said radio "has degenerated to the Top 40." The Reuters account of the Columbia forum called the fate of radio "a potent weapon" in the hands of critics of further media consolidation: "Even many fans of deregulation don't deny that giant Clear Channel Communications has distorted the radio business."

But of course that's not how Clear Channel sees it. In its FCC filing, the company says "it is beyond question that diversity as measured by the choices open to consumers has exploded in recent decades. Consumers in the modern media marketplace face an embarrassment of riches."

News Bites

8 Last week I reported that an unexpected $500,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation had allowed Window to the World Communications Inc. to rehire a WTTW producer who'd just been laid off and bring back WFMT announcer Jan Weller as a freelancer. I was misinformed, as was the Sun-Times's Rob Feder, who reported pretty much the same thing. Weller will remain on the air because Scott Thomas--the freelance announcer who'd been working Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday--voluntarily gave up his Saturday and Sunday shifts to Weller. This had nothing to do with the grant.

And in other Channel 11 news, Harvey Moshman, producer of Wild Chicago, has resigned to go work for Channel 2 once the current 13-week season is over. No funding has been located yet to keep the show on the air beyond that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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