Sometime this spring, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to take a step without precedent in the history of U.S. communications policy. Once upon a time a watchdog agency, the FCC is going to approve a near-$4 billion merger between two companies that will result in the parent companys programmingand probably not coincidentally, its right-wing politicsbeing broadcast into 72 percent of American homes.
They teach us in journalism school never to write is going to, because, well, there might be an earthquake. OK. There might be an earthquake. But Im not even sure that would stop Donald Trumps FCC, and commissioner Ajit Pai, from giving the kiss of approval to this merger that would be horrible for America even if the company were a liberal agitprop machine rather than a conservative one.
The company, as you might have guessed, is Sinclair Broadcasting. It seeks approval to join forces with Tribune Media. The merger would eviscerate the principles the FCC was created to uphold and defendprinciples such as diversity of ownership to foster competition, diversity of viewpoints to foster public debate, and localism to foster service to the community. All three have been perched precariously on the sill since the Reagan administration. But once this is approved, out the window and down to the sidewalk theyll tumble.
Recently, I sat down with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to talk about this. Shes shocked at what is happening on the commission, to which President Obama appointed her in 2011. Since Trump became president and Pai took over, she told me, All of our media policy decisions have one thing in common: They are all custom built for the business plans of Sinclair Broadcasting.
Rosenworcel walked me through six votes the commission has taken in the Trump era. All were concluded along partisan lines, and all have in common the fact that they were good for Sinclair.
1. Reinstatement of the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) discount. If youre of a certain age you may remember that there were always one or two UHF channels that you tuned in with that other dial on your TV (in my childhood, it was Pittsburghs WPGH Channel 53). Those stations were harder for customers to get then, so the FCC counted them in ownership terms only half as much as they counted Very High Frequency (VHF) channels (your old Channel 2, Channel 4, etc.). But when everything became digital, the discount increasingly became an anachronism. The Obama-era FCC finally got rid of it in 2016, but Pais FCC restored it last July. Interestingly enough, Sinclair owns a large number of UHF stations, Rosenworcel says. It makes no technical sense, she added. It benefits Sinclair Broadcasting.
2. Change in media ownership rules to allow a company to own two of the top four stations in any given market. I remember the quaint old days when the same company wasnt allowed to own a newspaper and a TV station in the same market. But last November, the FCC said broadcasters could own two of the top four stations in a market. Variety, which really covers this stuff, called the new ownership rules the most significant changes to media ownership regulations in a generation. Rosenworcel says that Sinclair has or will have two stations in markets such as Des Moines, Seattle, Richmond, Salt Lake City, and others.
3. Easing of the 39 percent ownership cap. The old limit said no single broadcaster can reach more than 39 percent of the population. Last December, the FCC voted to remove that cap. It may impose a new cap, or it may decide no cap is needed at all! Making this one even more curious is the fact that this overrides not just a previous regulatory decision but an actual law of Congress, passed in 2004.
4. Rescinding of merger advice. This involved two party-line votes that relaxed the rules govern companies responsibilities when mergers occur. Republican commissioners said at the time of the vote that the Obama-era rules were onerous, but Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, the other Democratic commissioner, argued that it takes companies like Sinclair off the hook for assuming certain shared costs under merger agreements that companies have had to shoulder in the past.
5. Voting to end the main studio rule. For 77 years, the FCC had a rule that a broadcaster maintain studios in a city where it is licensedits a sign of commitment to cover the local community. But as of last October, it does not.
6. Launching next-generation transmission standards. This is called ATSC 3.0, and its the future of television that will allow for much more interactive viewing experiences. One concern of Rosenworcel and Clyburn is that this coming format change will force everyone to buy a new TV in the next few years. But the larger concern is that Sinclair owns key patents related to the new format. Sinclair defenders say it hold only 12 key patents so would not stand to benefit overwhelmingly. News reports suggest otherwise. Rosenworcel, likewise, said that Sinclair owns some of the most essential patents and would stand to make billions.
Thats six votes. But the collective impact is profound. Every element of our media policy is custom-built for the business plan of Sinclair Broadcasting, says Rosenworcel. That is stunning, it is striking, and it looks like somethings wrong. And Im not the only one to think that. Were burning down the values of media policy in this agency in order to service this company.
Shes not alone in thinking it looks like somethings wrong. Democratic lawmakers have thought so too. And just last week, the FCC Inspector Generals office opened up an investigation into the commissions moves and Chairman Pais relationship with Sinclair. A New York Times investigation last summer found extensive meeting and correspondence between Pai and his staffers and Sinclair officials.
And who is Ajit Pai, anyway? As it happens you may have seen him in the news over the weekend. He attended the CPAC conference last week, and was given by the NRA something called the Charlton Heston Award for courage under fire for his anti-net neutrality stance.
Okay. First of all, whats a regulatory commissioner even doing at CPAC? Its one thing for someone like Pai to go to a Heritage Foundation conference and give a policy speech. Thats a conservative gathering, but thats fine because its a think tank. But CPAC? Its a hyper-partisan political event that this year happens to have featured an actual fascist. Its not the right place for an officially nonpartisan public servant. The two other Republican commissioners, Michael OReilly and Brendan Carr, also went.
An award from the NRA? The FCC commissioner? Once upon a time, this would have gotten an FCC chairman fired. Now its apparently something to brag about. Chairman Pai was asked to speak at CPAC and join a policy panel discussion with his fellow commissioners, says Pai spokesman Brian Hart, who responded to my emailed questions Sunday. The CPAC award was a complete surprise, and the chairman was honored. He did not actually receive the musket and the presenters announced onstage that they will keep it at their museum.
The fact that Pai doesnt have the musket doesnt mean he didnt earn it. He and his fellow Republican commissioners killed net neutrality last yearprovoking a huge uprising among the public that may yet force a reversal someday (topic for a future column). Theyve transformed the FCC from watchdog to lapdog.
But back to Sinclair: Rosenworcel wouldnt discuss Sinclairs politics, but I will. Heres a useful, brief history of Sinclairs on-air partisanship going back to the Bush years. These days, its very Trumpy. Remember Boris Epshteyn, the particularly oily Trump surrogate who left the White House after a short spell? He now does commentaries on SinclairThe Bottom Line with Boris. Politico reported last year that the Epshteyn segments are must-runs, meaning all Sinclair stations must run them (several times a week), along with commentary from another conservative, Mark Hyman, and something called Terrorism Alert Desk segments.
Imagine all that, in 72 percent of American homesa huge percentage of them, of course, totally unsuspecting, because millions of people have barely even heard of the FCC let alone given any thought to the communications regulatory policy that determines the flow of information that comes into their homes.
The potential Big Brother/Dear Leader ramifications of a Trump propaganda network getting into nearly three-quarters of all American homes is disturbing. But the right-wing politics isnt even the main point. The point is that all this consolidation is going to kill any remaining notion of the commons. Broadcasting is a public trust, Rosenworcel told me. In exchange for being given a license to use our airwaves, you have a duty.
The assault on those duties started in the 1980s, when Sen. Bob Packwood (R-OR) led the charge to end the Fairness Doctrine, which he used to refer to as the fearness doctrine (it was the end of the doctrine that gave us Rush Limbaugh). The assault has continued ever since and will behold its greatest triumph this springunless there really is an earthquake, in the form of the massive public uprising this outrage deserves.