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.