Eighty years ago, the dawn of the modern communications age coincided with the rise of authoritarian leaders who controlled and manipulated communications in Europe. President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the danger, declaring that
If the fires of freedom and civil liberties burn low in other lands, they must be made brighter in our own. If in other lands the press and books and literature of all kinds are censored, we must redouble our efforts here to keep them free. If in other lands the eternal truths of the past are threatened by intolerance, we must provide a safe place for their perpetuation.
Roosevelt and his aides were determined to guard against media-ownership structures that might place control of broadcast media in the United States in the hands of a tiny circle of elite individuals or corporations. To that end, they advocated for a muscular Federal Communications Commission that would guard against consolidation of media ownership and assure that all Americans had access to the information and ideas that sustain democracy.
The FCC was charged in 1934 with the clear mission of protecting the “public interest” from profiteers and propagandists. That mission was enhanced and extended over time. It was threatened, as well—but never so aggressively, nor so dramatically, as it is now threatened.
President Donald Trump’s chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai, and the Trump-aligned majority on a commission is bent on clearing the way for precisely the sort of media monopoly that FDR and the small-“d” democrats of his time feared.
Last week, the FCC voted 3-2 for a radical rewrite of media-ownership rules that will benefit corporate conglomerates, while diminishing the character and quality of the discourse in communities across the United States. In so doing, they strengthened the hand of at least one conglomerate that is closely aligned with Trump.
Pai, who is also moving to eliminate net neutrality protections that serve as “the First Amendment of the Internet,” portrayed Thursday’s vote as an updating of “stale” regulations. But the truth was well stated by John Bergmayer, the senior counsel with the group Public Knowledge, who told CNN “the FCC did not vote to ‘modernize’ the rules, but rather ‘to abandon them.’”
A dissenting commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, bluntly charged that, “Instead of engaging in thoughtful reform, which we should do, the agency sets its most basic values on fire. They are gone.”
There was no hyperbole in Rosenworcel’s assessment, as watchdog groups explained.
Free Press, the nation’s media-reform network, noted that
The agency rolled back a local television-ownership rule that barred a broadcaster from owning multiple stations in smaller local markets and weakened the standards against owning more than one top-rated station in the same market.
The FCC also gave its blessing to so-called joint sales agreements, or JSAs, which allow a single company to run the news operations of multiple stations in a single market that would otherwise compete against each other. The vote also overturned the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership rules, which prevented a single company from owning a daily newspaper, TV and radio stations in the same market.
[These] moves clear the way for the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media, a deal government agencies including the FCC are now reviewing. Should regulators approve the merger, the resulting broadcast giant would control more than 233 local-TV stations reaching 72 percent of the country’s population, far in excess of national limits set by Congress on broadcast-TV ownership.
Free Press President Craig Aaron explained,
Sinclair’s unabashed goal is to move toward a drastically consolidated news market in which only a few broadcast goliaths can afford to compete. And the result of today’s actions will be a new wave of media consolidation as other firms race to keep up. Any pretense that this vote will help journalism or increase ownership diversity is cynical and offensive. Today’s vote will lead to more mergers, more layoffs and more communities that have no news outlets in place to cover important stories and hold officials accountable,
“You don’t have to dislike Sinclair’s politics to see what’s wrong with this deal,” he continued,
Anyone who believes in a functioning democracy can see it’s a terrible idea to let one company amass this much media power. The FCC has abandoned its responsibilities to protect the public interest…
Michael Copps, the former commissioner who for many years attempted to renew and extend the FCC’s “public interest” mission, expressed deep frustration with its abandonment by Pai and the Trump partisans on the commission.
The FCC just wiped away time-tested and common sense safeguards that promote vibrant local media by ensuring voters have access to competing sources of news. By blessing consolidation this majority has ensured newsroom redundancy, meaning fewer working journalists to hold the powerful to account. And if that were not enough, let Big Broadcast get even bigger means cable customers nationwide will pay higher bills.
There is no credible rationale for this odious decision which runs flagrantly afoul of the public interest. Once again, this FCC majority is serving the interests of Trump-connected firms, namely Sinclair and Tribune. Disgraceful.
It is disgraceful. And it is dangerous. It threatens the discourse that sustains democracy at the local, state and national levels.
“This act,” says Florida Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, “will pave the wave for massive broadcast conglomerates to increasingly provide local viewers with nationalized cookie-cutter news and corporate propaganda that’s produced elsewhere.”
But it won’t be implemented without a fight.
“Free Press will take the FCC to court to challenge [the] vote, as we have in the past when the agency weakened its ownership rules. The FCC has again failed to run a fair and transparent process, listen to public input, do the necessary research, or answer for how gutting these rules will impact the already abysmally low levels of broadcast ownership by women and people of color, says Aaron. “The FCC has repeatedly lost in court on this very issue for ignoring these concerns. It can’t keep ignoring them and hope to escape court scrutiny and public outrage.”