Tom Wheeler was Chair of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017. In the wake of Sinclair Broadcasting’s application to acquire Tribune Media, he wrote a very troubling article for the Guardian.
It is a major decision, since the resulting broadcast behemoth would hold as many as 233 local television stations reaching into more than 70 percent of American homes. Allegations about the Trump administration’s closeness to Sinclair – including Jared Kushner’s campaign deal with them – have been made. All I know is what I read, but the lead up to the actual decision has been significant and seems to presage approval.
Wheeler has previously warned that Trump’s FCC has been strategically knocking down all the regulatory barriers that have kept Sinclair Broadcasting from becoming a national Goliath.
First, the FCC changed the rules so that some stations are counted at only half their reach – using funny math to comply with Congress’ mandate that no single broadcaster should control access to more than 39 percent of American households. Then, the FCC proposed eliminating the requirement that each licensee maintain a local studio, doing away with the concept that broadcasters perform an important public service by delivering local news and information over the people’s airwaves. Finally, the commission eliminated the prohibition on a favorite trick of slick lawyers: that total management control and appropriation of profits of a television station doesn’t constitute effective ownership, and thus avoids Congress’ cap.
The rules that the current FCC Chair has changed or evaded were intended to protect a broadcasting marketplace of ideas–to prevent any one voice from effectively drowning out other voices, other perspectives, in a community.
Proponents of these sorts of rule changes and mega-mergers argue that the internet, social media and things like satellite radio provide adequate diversity of opinion. Perhaps, when those constantly morphing mediums have “settled in” and become routine touchstones in the cultural landscape (if that ever happens), that argument might carry some weight. At this point in our constantly-morphing media landscape, however, allowing Sinclair–or any one outlet–to dominate the airwaves would be like giving Fox or MSNBC control of all but a few cable news channels.
The current chair of the FCC has already signaled his agenda by trying to reverse the rules protecting Net Neutrality.
This rule-changing at the FCC illustrates one of the most dangerous aspects of the Trump Administration. We all worry about having a mentally-ill President’s finger on the nuclear button, but very few of us know about–or pay attention to–obscure and technocratic rule changes, the sorts of sabotage that Scott Pruitt is engaging in at the EPA. While decent citizens react negatively to Trump’s embrace of the KKK, et al, most of us don’t even see what is happening in more boring regulatory precincts.
For that matter, most of us were unaware of Sinclair’s determinedly rightwing political agenda until John Oliver’s recent, scathing take-down.
As the French philosopher Jacques Ellul once warned, the emergence of mass media made possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale. Monopolies in the markets for goods are bad enough; allowing any perspective to monopolize the marketplace of ideas is infinitely worse.