The Senate’s rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t the only court news of note these days. The court will hear a case that threatens to put media consolidation into overdrive. The wrong ruling would create an existential threat to the local free press.
Current Federal Communications Commission rules prevent a single owner from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market. For example, a big national chain can’t buy both The Seattle Times (not that it’s for sale) and King5 television.
That Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule has been around since 1975. In the words of the FCC, it exists to “promote competition and a diversity of viewpoints in local markets, thereby enriching local communities through the promotion of distinct and antagonistic voices.”
That was an important goal then, and it’s an important goal today.
Back in the 1970s, most cities had only one or two daily newspapers and a handful of broadcast stations. By requiring different owners, the rule created an environment in which residents had access to different opinions and news outlets. Competition created an opportunity for the media to flourish.
By the 2000s, the internet had created spaces for diverse news sources, so the FCC concluded the cross-ownership ban no longer was needed. That wealthy media chains pushed elected officials and FCC commissioners to let them off the leash didn’t hurt.
So the FCC tried to change the rule three times, and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shot it down three times, most recently in 2019.
In the 2019 case, the majority ruled that the FCC had not done a good enough analysis of the impacts on minority and female ownership of media outlets.
The FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear them out.
As with so many things these days, this has become a partisan issue, with Republicans on the side of media consolidation and Democrats arguing to keep the cross-ownership rule.
Partisanship is built into the FCC. The president, with Senate confirmation, appoints the five FCC commissioners to staggered five-year terms. No more than three may be from the same political party. Right now, Republican commissioners hold a 3-2 majority.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has criticized the Republican push to allow cross-ownership.
“Over my objection, the FCC has been busy dismantling the values embedded in its ownership policies,” she said after the 3rd Circuit decision. “The court rightly sent the FCC’s handiwork back to the agency because the FCC’s analysis was so ‘insubstantial.’ The FCC shouldn’t be in the business of cutting corners when it comes to honoring our long-held values when updating media ownership policies.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, takes a different view.
“For the last 15 years, a majority of the same 3rd Circuit panel has taken that authority for themselves, blocking any attempt to modernize these regulations to match the obvious realities of the modern media marketplace,” he said. “It’s become quite clear that there is no evidence or reasoning — newspapers going out of business, broadcast radio struggling, broadcast TV facing stiffer competition than ever — that will persuade them to change their minds.”
Progressives often point to Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns KOMO TV, as a boogeyman of conservative media ownership creeping across the nation. They’re probably right. But conservatives should worry, too. What if National Public Radio starts buying up newspapers?
Cities across the country have seen the deleterious effects of newspaper consolidation by national chains and hedge funds. New, distant owners have more interest in profits than supplying quality local journalism. They gut newsrooms, lay off reporters and weaken local coverage. Sometimes they even close newspapers, selling off the few remaining assets and leaving a news desert in the community.
Accelerating that process will accelerate the erosion of a cornerstone of democracy.
If the FCC wants to end the cross-ownership rule, it probably can. It will need to tick the right boxes and jump through the right hoops to satisfy the courts, but nothing in the law or the Constitution forbids a media conglomerate from owning both a newspaper and a television station in a community.
But just because it can doesn’t mean it should. Allowing a handful of massive corporations to control the news nationwide would allow those owners to crush dissenting views. That’s not what America’s Founders envisioned when they put freedom of the press in the Constitution.