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Oberstar understood media’s — and the public’s — role in a strong democracy

REUTERS/Eric Miller
Rep. Jim Oberstar worried that a Northwest-Delta merger would create a domino effect and lead to the creation of three U.S. mega-carriers, and wasn't afraid to say so on the record.

Like everybody else who crossed paths with former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, I was shocked to learn about his death Saturday. He lived life with such tremendous vigor, so it was hard to comprehend that he was suddenly gone.

Liz Fedor

As I reflected upon his many contributions in Congress, I smiled as I recalled how the late congressman recognized that journalists need to play a central role in fostering a well-functioning democracy.

Oberstar knew that journalists are only as good as their information, which is why he called me late one afternoon in January 2008 to confirm that Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines were in serious merger talks.

I was covering the airlines beat for the Star Tribune, and nobody would go “on the record” to acknowledge that talks were under way. Before Oberstar placed that memorable call to me, I had talked to him a few days earlier and asked him to let me know if he came across anything substantive about a Northwest merger deal.

NWA executives had just left

After my phone rang, Oberstar reported in and told me that two top Northwest executives had just left his Washington office after making the case for a merger. Oberstar, as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, was in a pivotal position to raise objections to the merger.

When Oberstar called he did not fall into a Washington practice of asking that he be identified as a “Washington source” or “congressional source.”

He was on the record and fine with attribution. He also named the two Northwest executives: Ben Hirst, Northwest’s senior vice president of corporate affairs and administration, and Andrea Fischer Newman, Northwest’s senior vice president of government affairs.

At the time of that interview, Oberstar said that Hirst and Newman argued “there is little route overlap and not a significant effect on competition.” But Oberstar disagreed with that assessment.

Concerned about potential domino effect

The veteran congressman said he worried that a Northwest-Delta merger would create a domino effect and lead to the creation of three U.S. mega-carriers.

Rep. Jim Oberstar

Oberstar was right about the domino effect. We now have three jumbo carriers: Delta, United and American.

Although he vociferously opposed the Delta-Northwest combination, the Justice Department allowed it to proceed.

On the day that Oberstar spilled the beans about the Delta-Northwest merger talks, neither airline was confirming that negotiations were taking place.

Oberstar thought a merger would have negative consequences for consumers, and he wanted consumers to know what was going on.

When the Northwest executives, now in prominent posts for Delta Air Lines, came to his Washington office, Oberstar was thinking about his Minnesota constituents and other U.S. travelers.

He wanted citizens to have a voice in the merger debate. So Oberstar called me because he knew I could deliver the news to his Minnesota constituents.

Liz Fedor is a former Star Tribune airlines reporter. She has also written for MinnPost.

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