Tag Archives: FCC

Sinclair Media Encounters A Roadblock

In late July, the Washington Post ran a story that was tantalizing by virtue of what it omitted.

The paper reported that the FCC had raised substantial questions about Sinclair Broadcasting’s proposed merger with Tribune Media. In prior years, “substantial questions” by the FCC have been enough to derail proposals, and I was particularly surprised because up to this point, Ajit Pai, Trump’s appointee to head the FCC, has conducted himself precisely as one would expect a Trump appointee to behave, which is to say he has been a total tool of big telecom. For example, Pai engineered the repeal of Net Neutrality–despite the fact that his predecessor had strongly supported the policy (as do huge majorities of Americans) and despite the huge number of public comments protesting the move–an “accomplishment” that undoubtedly pleased Verizon, where he had been an executive before moving to the FCC.

Trump, of course, took to Twitter to express his disagreement, tweeting in his usual peevish and childish prose:

Trump said Tuesday that it was “So sad and unfair” that the FCC, an independent agency, did not approve the merger, a $3.9 billion transaction that would create a conservative television giant that originally hoped to reach roughly 70 percent of U.S. households.

In his tweet, the president stressed how the deal would provide a “conservative voice for and of the People,” though politics are not supposed to factor into merger considerations.

“Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!” the president tweeted.

Sinclair–dubbed the worst media company you never heard of by John Oliver--is a lesser known clone of Fox News; if it were allowed to become the country’s largest broadcaster, that would vastly increase the influence of its reactionary programming by adding millions of homes to its nationwide network. (Its original proposal had the company reaching 233 stations in 108 markets.)

So far, Pai has been a reliable Trump lackey, consistently siding with big business over the consumers whose interests his agency is charged with protecting.

Pai moved to allow more consolidation among TV stations last year by restoring an FCC accounting method known as the UHF discount. Under the discount, broadcast companies can own more stations before bumping up against a national audience cap limiting their reach to 39 percent of U.S. households. On Wednesday, a federal appeals court dismissed an effort by consumer advocacy groups challenging Pai’s decision.

That court ruling is a victory for Sinclair, even as its deal undergoes legal review. The company’s merger proposal depends on the UHF discount to stay compliant with the FCC’s national audience cap; after factoring in the discount, Sinclair has said, the combined company will reach 38.9 percent of U.S. households.

Some of Pai’s critics, including Democrats in Congress, have highlighted these and other policy moves in questioning the chairman’s relationship with the conservative broadcasting giant.

Sinclair has close ties to the Trump administration. During the campaign, according to Politico, the company made a deal with Trump in which it promised positive media coverage for preferred access. (Reputable journalists they are not.) Boris Epshteyn, who worked for Trump in the White House, is a company executive.

The FCC’s sudden concern about the merger raises two questions, one of which is: why? Has Pai suddenly discovered that the purpose of the FCC is not the empowerment of Big Telecom? Is he less of a pawn than he has heretofore seemed? Is there some history between him and Sinclair that might emerge to suggest a quid pro quo that would smear his reputation if he simply rubber-stamped the proposed merger?

Inquiring minds want to know!

When the “substantial concerns” were first announced, several media outlets asked: will the clear disapproval of the twit in chief cause Pai to back off? That question is now moot; yesterday, Tribune Media called off the merger and announced a lawsuit against Sinclair.

A good result, but a very, very curious chain of events….

Our Very Own Pravda

Tom Wheeler headed the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama Administration. From all indications, he took his responsibilities seriously; he was a vocal defender of Net Neutrality, for example, unlike his replacement, a former Verison executive whose decisions have been reliable wins for big telecom companies.

So when Wheeler sounds an alarm, that alarm is worth heeding.

Wheeler has indeed sounded an alarm. In a report for The Brookings Institution, he highlights a recent, blatant effort at propaganda from Sinclair Broadcasting (aka the Fox News of “local” television–or, as John Oliver dubbed it, “the most influential media company you never heard of”).

“Many members of the media and opponents of the president have used this issue [separation of children from immigrant families] to make it seem as if those who are tough on immigration are somehow monsters. Let’s be honest: while some of the concern is real, a lot of it is politically driven by liberals in politics and the media.”

The above is the conclusion of a two-minute “must run” that Sinclair Broadcast Group forced its over-100 local television stations to air. Read by Sinclair political director (and former Trump White House advisor) Boris Epshteyn, the attack on the media and those who might disagree with the president is no great surprise.

Wheeler has been following the activities of the agency he headed, and he reports that under Trump,  the Commission has been diligently working to assure that Sinclair is able to expand the reach of its partisan political messaging.

By rewriting the rules governing local broadcasting, the Trump FCC is allowing Sinclair to turn supposedly “local” television operations into a coordinated national platform for the delivery of messages such as the one cited above.

When television was a relatively new communications medium dependent upon use of publicly-owned airwaves, the licenses of locally owned and operated stations were conditioned on undertakings to operate in the public interest, as local outlets for local news and information. In order to protect that localism, the law forbid national media companies from acquiring them.

However, the Trump FCC effectively allows a company to exceed the ownership limit. The agency replaced the rule prohibiting “sidecar agreements,” where a company claims not to own a station’s license despite collecting all the revenue, making all the hiring and programming decisions, and forcing the station to carry “must-run” content. Sinclair lawyers originally conceived these legal fictions to skirt the rules protecting localism, and the FCC rubber-stamped the charade.

While ordinary Americans are responding–haphazardly–to the White House’s daily, highly visible assaults on democratic norms and the rule of law, Trump’s appointees are working behind the scenes to dismantle the rules and regulations that have been put in place to keep plutocrats from raping the rest of us. What gets lost in all the anti-regulatory rhetoric is the fact that we owe clean air and water, safe food, and honest news reporting, among other important things, to good regulations.

Good regulations ensure that “level playing field” we all claim to support. I’ll be first to concede that not all regulations are good, but the answer is not a wholesale dismantling of the rules–if a regulation is outdated, or counterproductive, that particular regulation can be changed. That, of course, takes work–not to mention subject-matter knowledge and a commitment to the common good.

It is impossible to overstate the damage that has been done by propaganda arms like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting. There are plenty of other propaganda outlets on both the Left and Right, preaching to their respective choirs, but none have the reach and influence of Fox and Sinclair. Sinclair’s propaganda is particularly potent because it is unrecognized– cloaked in the pretense of independence and localism.

When Mike Pence was Governor of Indiana, he made a much-derided attempt to establish an “official” state news bureau. Genuine news sources immediately dubbed it “Pravda on the Prairie.”

Thanks to Sinclair and Trump’s FCC, we now have Pravda for the whole country.

 

Net Neutrality

Well, they did it. Trump’s Verizon  puppet at the FCC–after a campaign of disinformation and downright dishonesty–got his (and Verizon’s) fondest wish: they voted yesterday to dispense with Obama-era rules protecting Net Neutrality.

If you are one of the many Americans who is unfamiliar with this policy, or unsure why it matters, Vox has a comprehensive explanation; if you have less time, Paul Krugman recently offered a concise analogy. Asked for his thoughts on the impending vote, and on the policy, he responded that

… for a democratic society, and also just for a society that is open to new ideas, level playing fields are really important. One of the great unifying things that we did very early on in our country’s history was to establish a postal service, where the cost of sending a letter was the same no matter who was sending it, no matter how far you were sending it…

We’ve done very, very well with providers not allowed to discriminate among different users. This is something that’s very much not broken. Why try to fix it?

This assault on Internet equality is just one of the myriad Trump Administration efforts to remake our country into a plutocracy–to make America “great” for the powerful and wealthy.

It gets harder and harder to keep track of the wholesale de-regulation that Trump insists will unleash the productivity of the market–the rollbacks of environmental regulations that keep our air breathable and our water drinkable, the withdrawal of measures to protect students from fraudulent private colleges and sexual assaults, reversal of regulations preventing fossil fuel companies from despoiling protected lands….I teach public policy, so following all of these efforts to eviscerate the rules of fair play (and not-so-incidentally, anything Obama did or favored) is part of my job–and I can’t begin to keep up.

Before the election of this monumentally ignorant man, I was not a huge fan of robust federalism, or the argument that state “laboratories of democracy” would, or at least could, constrain unwise federal policies. As I’ve watched sensible state governments respond to Trumpism by protecting immigrants, decriminalizing marijuana, enacting stringent environmental protections and demonstrating that raising taxes actually promotes economic growth, I’ve warmed to the wisdom of that argument.

And now…

Washington State has followed the shameful vote against Net Neutrality with an announcement that it will fill the void and protect Internet users: 

On the eve of an expected vote by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back crucial net neutrality rules, Gov. Jay Inslee joined Attorney General Bob Ferguson, legislators, and business leaders to announce state plans to preserve an open internet and protect Washington consumers from internet companies that are not transparent about costs or services.

Inslee wrote a letter to the FCC earlier this month, in which he made a strong case for the retention of current policy.

All Americans, as a matter of principle, should enjoy equal access to the educational, social and economic power of the internet. Ensuring this important technology remains free and unfettered is critical both to our personal freedoms and to our country’s economy,”

Making Washington State’s announcement, Inslee conceded that the FCC’s vote will preempt states from ensuring full net neutrality. But he said states can take a number of steps to promote an open internet and strengthen protections for consumers–and Washington intends to take them:

Hold companies to their commitments not to block websites, throttle speeds, or impose prioritization pricing

  • Direct the state’s Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) to establish a process for ISPs to certify that they will not engage in practices inconsistent with net neutrality principles.
  • Limit state-conferred benefits to ISPs that have made such certifications.
  • Limit applicability of UTC pole attachment rules to ISPs that are net neutral.
  • Review other state-conferred benefits such as easements and taxes.

Leverage the state’s power as a large purchaser of ISP and telecommunications services

  • Use the state government’s role as a big customer, and our ability to establish state master contracts used by localities, to incentivize Washington companies to adhere to net neutrality principles.
  • Pursue regulatory and legislative action to award contracts to vendors that meet net neutral business requirements.
  • Lead the exploration of a multi-state purchasing cooperative to procure internet service from providers that adhere to net neutrality principles.

Hold companies accountable for warranties made to consumers

  • Create a state-wide internet speed test. This will allow Washingtonians to test their own broadband speed at home, and submit the test to help appropriate state agencies determine what internet speeds consumers are receiving and where companies may be blocking or throttling.
  • Collaborate with legislators to strengthen our consumer protection laws to include the principles of net neutrality.

Encourage new entrants into the currently concentrated ISP market

  • Pursue legislation authorizing public utility districts and rural and urban port districts to provide retail ISP and telecommunications services.
  • Prohibit government-owned ISP services, such as municipal broadband networks, from engaging in blocking, throttling, or priority pricing for Internet services.

As one Washington state legislator asserted, state governments have the right to prevent a “reckless and power-intoxicated federal government from handing over access to the free flow of information to the largest corporations on this planet.”

If other states follow in Washington’s path, they will do more than protect an essential platform for American democratic discourse.

They’ll make a federalism fan out of this skeptic.

Meanwhile, At The FCC….

Unlike many–most?–of Trump’s appointees, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai appears to know what he’s doing and how to do it. And that’s a big problem.

He’s already rolled back what The Street calls a “pillar of U.S. media ownership restrictions.

“Owners of local television stations will be permitted to buy a local radio station or newspaper in the same market after the Federal Communications Commissions on Thursday, Nov. 16, voted to lift the ban on cross-ownership that had stood since 1975. The agency, which has been fast eliminating restrictions long opposed by TV station companies, also eliminated a ban on two TV stations in the same market from entering into joint sales agreements to sell advertising.

The restrictions being lifted were intended to prevent any one political perspective from dominating a given media market. Here in Indianapolis, where right wing Sinclair is proposing purchase that will allow it to dominate the radio market, this new permissiveness is likely to facilitate a market blanketed with Fox-like, right wing propaganda.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who orchestrated the changes, said the bans and other restrictions were no longer relevant given the advent of online news sources and the shrinking circulations of most local newspapers. The two Democrats on the five-person commission, echoing other critics, countered that Pai understated the importance and impact that local media sources continue to have despite the rise of Facebook Inc. and other social media platforms.

The damage this change will inflict pales, however, in comparison to Pai’s most cherished goal–the elimination of net neutrality rules.

As Time Magazine and a number of other news outlets have reported,

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday followed through on his pledge to repeal 2015 regulations designed to ensure that internet service providers treat all online content and apps equally, setting up a showdown with consumer groups and internet companies who fear the move will stifle competition and innovation.

The current rules, known as net neutrality, impose utility-style regulation on ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to prevent them from favoring their own digital services over those of their rivals.

Pai says he wants the FCC to stop “micromanaging” the Internet. What he calls micromanaging is what we used to call “regulating,” and although it is certainly possible to point to examples of excessive regulation, there was–and is–a reason for establishing “rules of the road.” The reasons for net neutrality rules are especially compelling.

As the Internet Association, a group composed of major internet companies such as Google and Amazon, put it,

“Consumers have little choice in their ISP, and service providers should not be allowed to use this gatekeeper position at the point of connection to discriminate against websites and apps.”

The group is fighting the change. So are many other organizations concerned with consumer rights.

Consumers Union predicted a repeal of net neutrality would allow ISPs to raise their prices and give preferential treatment to certain sites and apps.

“Strong net neutrality rules are vital to consumers’ everyday lives and essential to preserving the internet as we know it today — an open marketplace where websites large and small compete on equal terms and where information and ideas move freely,” said Jonathan Schwantes, the advocacy group’s senior policy counsel.

Two of the FCC’s five voting commissioners signaled they will oppose Pai’s plan.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel derided Pai’s plan as “ridiculous and offensive to the millions of Americans who use the internet every day.”

Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn skewered Pai’s proposals as “a giveaway to the nation’s largest communications companies, at the expense of consumers and innovation.”

Before being named to the FCC, Pai was an executive at Verizon. I’m sure that’s an irrelevant factoid.(cough, cough).

The last time net neutrality was attacked, John Oliver delivered such an effective argument against the change that the switchboards at the FCC were overwhelmed; his diatribe was said to have prompted some 150,000 calls. Scheduling the vote for the week after Thanksgiving is a rather transparent effort to avoid that sort of public outrage, an effort to change the rule while people are otherwise occupied.

Let’s not allow that strategy to work. I encourage everyone to click through, watch Oliver’s explanation of what’s at stake–and then call the FCC.

Spin Cycle

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.