In "an awful new low" that elicited warnings about "a new wave of media consolidation," the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday rolled back media ownership regulations under the guise of trying "to modernize its broadcast ownership rules & to help promote ownership diversity."
"Any pretense that this vote will help journalism or increase ownership diversity is cynical and offensive," said Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron, warning that the move 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."
In response to Thursday's move by the FCC, Aaron's group vowed to fight the decision and initiated a campaign to file suit.
Say goodbye to local media. The @FCC just voted to destroy media-ownership protections. We've had enough. So we're suing the FCC. Chip in and help us win in court: https://t.co/qr4luOyEol pic.twitter.com/X4mHIl5ldC
— Free Press (@freepress) November 16, 2017
"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," said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner and current special adviser for Common Cause. "There is no credible rationale for this odious decision which runs flagrantly afoul of the public interest."
The approved order (pdf):
- Eliminates newspaper/broadcast and radio/television cross-ownership rules, which imposed restrictions on owning multiple media outlets in the same market;
- Relaxes rules about local television ownership—including joint sales agreements, which allow a company to control news operations at several stations in one market, where stations would typically compete against each other; and
- Formally requests "comment on how to design and implement" an FCC diversity incubator program.
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Similar to the FCC decision last month to revise rules about local studio ownership—which was called a "death sentence for local media"—critics charge that the rollback is just the latest "massive handout" large media companies, including Sinclair Broadcast Group, a major conservative broadcasting company with widely reported ties to Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
The new rules are expected to help Sinclair move forward with a proposed a $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media, which would enable the company to reach 72 percent of the U.S. population. The merger must be approved by the FCC.
"Once again, this FCC majority is serving the interests of Trump-connected firms, namely Sinclair and Tribune," said Copps, calling the rollback "disgraceful."
"Chairman Pai has warped FCC policies and process to accommodate the creation of a Trump-friendly local-television conglomerate," said Aaron. "The Sinclair Broadcast Group's unabashed goal is to monopolize local-television markets and push its pro-Trump brand of propaganda over the public airwaves."
"You don't have to dislike Sinclair's politics to see what's wrong with this deal," Aaron added. "Anyone who believes in a functioning democracy can see it's a terrible idea to let one company amass this much media power."
In recent weeks, Democratic lawmakers have requested that Pai delay the vote and recuse himself until the FCC Inspector General's office has a chance to thoroughly reviews the chairman's ties to the merger and possible conflicts of interest. Despite attempts to halt the vote, the rollback passed along party lines, with the FCC's two Democratic commissioners strongly dissenting.
"These media giants will have degrees of power far beyond the imagination of our local communities," Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who voted against the proposal, told The Hill. "Mark my words, today will go down in history as the day when the FCC abdicated its responsibility to uphold the core values of localism, competition, and diversity in broadcasting."