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 company’s programming—and probably not coincidentally, its right-wing politics—being 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 I’m not even sure that would stop Donald Trump’s 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 defend—principles 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 they’ll tumble.
Recently, I sat down with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to talk about this. She’s 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 you’re 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 Pittsburgh’s 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 Pai’s 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 wasn’t 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 licensed—it’s 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 it’s 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.
That’s 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 something’s wrong. And I’m not the only one to think that. We’re burning down the values of media policy in this agency in order to service this company.”
She’s not alone in thinking it looks like something’s wrong. Democratic lawmakers have thought so too. And just last week, the FCC Inspector General’s office opened up an investigation into the commission’s moves and Chairman Pai’s 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, what’s a regulatory commissioner even doing at CPAC? It’s one thing for someone like Pai to go to a Heritage Foundation conference and give a policy speech. That’s a conservative gathering, but that’s fine because it’s a think tank. But CPAC? It’s a hyper-partisan political event that this year happens to have featured an actual fascist. It’s not the right place for an officially nonpartisan public servant. The two other Republican commissioners, Michael O’Reilly 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 it’s 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 doesn’t have the musket doesn’t mean he didn’t earn it. He and his fellow Republican commissioners killed net neutrality last year—provoking a huge uprising among the public that may yet force a reversal someday (topic for a future column). They’ve transformed the FCC from watchdog to lapdog.
But back to Sinclair: Rosenworcel wouldn’t discuss Sinclair’s politics, but I will. Here’s a useful, brief history of Sinclair’s on-air partisanship going back to the Bush years. These days, it’s very Trumpy. Remember Boris Epshteyn, the particularly oily Trump surrogate who left the White House after a short spell? He now does commentaries on Sinclair—“The 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 homes—a 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 isn’t 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 spring—unless there really is an earthquake, in the form of the massive public uprising this outrage deserves.