WHAT if I told you that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was again up to its old game of encouraging more media consolidation — more broadcast outlets owned by big companies?
“That can’t be,” you might say. “Weren’t those earlier attempts done under the George W. Bush administration’s FCC, and didn’t Barack Obama go on record against more consolidation and for more media diversity when he first ran for president?”
It surprised me, too. I thought the reconstituted commission that took control in 2009 would preserve local media and reassert the public interest in a diverse news and information ecosystem that is the foundation of our civic dialogue and, indeed, our system of self-government.
After being turned down by both Congress and the federal courts in recent years for attempting to loosen the ownership rules, the FCC tried to slip this through in the December holiday rush and only agreed to the briefest of delays when public-interest and civil-rights groups raised a public uproar.
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The proceeding before the commissioners right now would permit a media conglomerate to control the newspaper, two television stations, and up to eight radio stations in some markets. It would also eliminate restrictions against joint TV-and-radio cross-ownership.
An eminently possible real-world outcome of this proposal would be allowing Rupert Murdoch to purchase the ailing Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
Media consolidation continues to run rampant. The ownership rules are just about the last protection we have. Over the last 20 years we have seen hundreds of local, independent stations swallowed by a few media giants. As soon as the deals are done, the giants want to demonstrate to their Wall Street masters that they are achieving operational “efficiencies,” so they fire reporters and combine or shutter newsrooms, denying citizens the depth of reporting we need to make informed decisions for the future of the nation.
The Newspaper Association of America publicly stated in a filing at the FCC that “the true value of newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership comes from the economies of scale of sharing newsgathering resources.”
In other words, proponents of this measure openly admit that more consolidation means fewer reporters covering the pressing issues of the day. In fact, more than just a consequence, laying off reporters appears to be their express goal. Our democracy deserves better.
One reason the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned back the 2003 and 2007 efforts to loosen the rules was because of the FCC’s failure to address the shockingly low statistics on minority and female station ownership. In a country whose population is nearly one-third minority, racial minorities own just 2.2 percent of full-power commercial TV stations. Diverse ownership results in diverse content, meaning that minority communities get fair representation.
Yet the new FCC proposals are strikingly similar to consolidation rules that the court overturned. No wonder diversity issues lack the attention they deserve. Now is not the time to allow conglomerates to snatch up more independently owned stations.
The problems facing newspapers and minority broadcasters are real, but allowing Rupert Murdoch to purchase two of the largest daily newspapers in the country to combine with the rest of his media empire is not the solution.
We have a right to expect that the FCC will promote the vitality and diversity of our information infrastructure, starting by upholding the common-sense cross-ownership restrictions, and then moving on to some serious protection of the public interest, like making broadcast licensing dependent upon service to our local communities and to all our people.
Michael J. Copps was a Federal Communications Commissioner from 2001-2011 and currently heads the Media & Democracy Reform program at Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, D.C.