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Why protect media giants?

Why should the media be the only group with protection under the Constitution, associate professor Dr. David Vergobbi asked a group at the University of Utah during his lecture on "Media ownership and the economics of public debate" Wednesday.

Originally, the media were protected as a way to feed a democratic, open exchange of ideas, Vergobbi said. But he said most of today's media base story decisions on the estimated reaction of their advertisers and audience.

"What is this business doing besides making money that should be protected by the Constitution? The main point is that there are only six companies nationally who own 86 percent of all media."

Vergobbi spoke as part of a lecture at the U. on "Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Press, and Democracy." He specializes in mass communication, law, ethics, history and the press and society.

As part of his lecture and discussion, Vergobbi played a segment from the ABC news program "Nightline" featuring numerous journalists fired from their jobs after vocalizing strong opinions against President Bush shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

For example, city editor Tom Gutting was fired from the Texas City Sun newspaper after writing a column titled "Bush has failed to lead U.S." And columnist Dan Guthrie got the ax at the Grants Pass Daily Courier in Grants Pass, Ore., for penning opinions saying Bush "skedaddled" after the Sept. 11 attacks and hid in a hole in Nebraska.

Vergobbi said he could possibly understand the decision to let someone go for writing or speaking a viewpoint uncharacteristic of the majority at a small media outlet that struggles making money. But at newspapers and television stations that are owned by giant conglomerates, "What, they're not making enough money? I don't buy that.

"Democracy is messy. People forget that. . . . It comes up with the issue of these firings," he said. Too many news organizations are allowing their marketing management and even advertisers sit in on editorial board meetings and make major news judgment decisions, he said.

"It happens. And it's happening more and more and more because of this ownership of the media."

Vergobbi spoke of the recent ad-pulling decision made by Utah's ABC Channel 4. An ad featuring Cindy Sheehan, the anti-war mom who camped out near Bush's Texas ranch in hopes of talking to him about her son's death in the Iraq War, was schedule to play before Bush's August visit to Utah. But the ad was removed.

"Their reason was they thought it might offend too many people in the audience. And now that media isn't giving the news, the facts of the day. But they're delivering the news based on not losing the audience."

Pulling ads and stories to avoid offending the audience or advertisers is not allowing democracy to take its course, he said. He added that the public cannot make an informed decision without the full story from trusted media.

"I think our news agencies are really screwed up a lot because they're not delivering on the story," he said. "It is not happening. Especially in democracy, it's not happening."


E-mail: astowell@desnews.com