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FCC Gives Sinclair Broadcast Group A Gift By Eliminating Key Media Ownership Rule

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eliminated a rule that has existed for four decades, which prohibited corporations from owning newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market. The move will pave the way for further media consolidation and directly benefit companies like Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Craig Aaron, the president of Free Press, an advocacy group that fights for media reform, declared, “Today’s FCC vote should be a national scandal. Chairman [Ajit] Pai has warped FCC policies and process to accommodate the creation of a [Donald] Trump-friendly local-television conglomerate. 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.”

Free Press plans to challenge the change to media ownership rules in court.

According to the Associated Press, “The Republican-dominated FCC approved the changes in a 3-2 vote along party lines. The two Democratic commissioners and other critics say that dumping these rules, by encouraging consolidation, hurts media diversity.”

“This act will pave the way for massive broadcast conglomerates to increasingly provide local viewers with nationalized cookie-cutter news and corporate propaganda that’s produced elsewhere,” said Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

Mignon Clyburn, one of two Democratic commissioners, stated, “This is really about helping large media companies grow even bigger.” She said Republicans are focused on “granting the industry’s holiday wish list early rather than looking out for the public interest.”

For an example of how this may immediately impact local media, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted this may allow Sinclair to “avoid some divestitures in order to gain approval” for a $3.9 billion acquisition of the Tribune Media Company. Sinclair would like to “acquire Tribune’s 42 TV stations in 33 markets as well as cable network WGN America, extending its reach to 72 percent of American households.”

“If it isn’t required to divest any stations, Sinclair would end up owning KTVI (Channel 2) and KPLR (Channel 11) in St. Louis in addition to KDNL (Channel 30), which it already owns.”

Michael Copps, a former chairman of the FCC who was appointed by President George W. Bush, previously called Sinclair “the most dangerous company most people have never heard of.” It is a right-wing media company that uses the 173 stations it owns to push conservative causes and promote Republican politicians. John Oliver profiled the company with his satirical HBO program, “Last Week Tonight,” earlier this year.

In addition to this vote, the FCC also approved a change that Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said will gut Lifeline, which is a program that is supposed to improve access to phone and internet service for “people of color, low income people, seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities.” It could have “particularly egregious consequences” for tribal communities.

The Republican-controlled FCC lauded the vote in a press release, arguing it will “modernize” broadcast ownership rules and help “promote ownership diversity in the broadcast industry.” It also contends this will allow for greater competition in the digital age and “ensure a diversity of viewpoints in local markets.”

But this will primarily help corporations like CBS Corporation, Nexstar Media Group Inc., and Tegna Inc. compete with internet and cable companies. It will make it tougher for smaller, more independent media operations to thrive in local communities.

As Free Press acknowledged, this is not the first favor the FCC has done for Sinclair this year. Back in April, it “reinstated the so-called UHF discount, an obsolete loophole that helps Sinclair skirt those congressionally mandated ownership limits.” Last month, it eliminated the “’main studio rule,’ which required TV and radio broadcasters to maintain studios in or near the communities they serve.”

As Craig Aaron of Free Press contended, “Sinclair’s unabashed goal is to move toward a drastically consolidated news market in which only a few broadcast goliaths can afford to compete. And the result of today’s actions will be a new wave of media consolidation as other firms race to keep up. Any pretense that this vote will help journalism or increase ownership diversity is cynical and offensive. Today’s vote 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.”

“The FCC has again failed to run a fair and transparent process, listen to public input, do the necessary research, or answer for how gutting these rules will impact the already abysmally low levels of broadcast ownership by women and people of color,” he added. “The FCC has repeatedly lost in court on this very issue for ignoring these concerns. It can’t keep ignoring them and hope to escape court scrutiny and public outrage.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."