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.’”