‘Death sentence for local media’: Warnings as FCC pushes change to benefit right-wing media giant

Free press advocates say rule changes are "massive handout" to broadcaster Sinclair that would have far-reaching and negative impacts in communities nationwide

In a series of moves last week that have alarmed free speech advocates and critics of media consolidation, the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) voted to abolish a rule requiring radio and television broadcasters to maintain studios near the communities they serve, and FCC chairman Ajit Pai announced further plans to end certain media ownership rules.

The policy shifts are expected to significantly benefit the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group—whose reported close ties to Pai have raised concerns as the federal government reviews Sinclair’s proposed $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media, which would expand the broadcaster’s reach to 72 percent of the country.

The “main studio rule” was established in 1939 and required that radio and TV broadcasters maintained studios within 25 miles of the communities where they were licensed to transmit signals. When broadcasters could prove that it was in the public’s interest to have studios located outside of that range, they were allowed to apply for exemptions.

While Pai, a Trump appointee, claimed (pdf) that due to technological advancements, the regulation was “no longer needed to enable broadcasters to be responsive to their communities of license,” consumer advocacy group Free Press warned that the FCC’s decision to end the rule will allow broadcasters to homogenize reports instead of serving local communities.

Calling the decision a “massive handout to [Pai's] friends and political allies at Sinclair,” Free Press policy analyst Dana Floberg warned, it that “will hit low-income families, rural populations, and people of color the hardest.” By eliminating this rule, she added, the FCC “has blasted open a path for conglomerates like Sinclair to move even more resources—including broadcast facilities and staff—away from underserved communities.”

“At a time when broadcast conglomerates like Sinclair are gobbling up new stations and pulling media resources out of marginalized communities,” she said, “we still need the main studio rule to help connect broadcasters to the local viewers and listeners they’re supposed to serve.”

Democratic FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn told Bloomberg that with the party-line vote to end the rule, the agency is “paving the way for broadcast station groups, large and small, to terminate studio staff and abandon the communities they are obligated to serve.”

Following that decision on Tuesday, Pai announced in a U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Wedensday that the agency will vote next month on rolling back rules that block ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations that serve the same market.

Although the news was lauded by news media companies, former regulators and consumer advocates worry that loosening the rules would enable individuals or companies to have too much sway over public opinion.

Michael Copps, a former Democratic FCC commissioner who is now a special adviser to the nonprofit Common Cause, told the New York Times, “Ajit Pai’s announcement today is the most retrograde I have ever heard from an FCC chairman,” adding: “Apparently, he has lost all sense of self-restraint. It’s a virtual death sentence for local media.”

Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron said Pai’s proposed rollback “is tailor-made for Sinclair and other giant broadcast chains that push often slanted or cookie-cutter content over the public airwaves,” and “Pai is clearly committed to doing the bidding of companies like Sinclair and clearing any obstacles to their voracious expansion.”

“He’s fulfilling a longstanding industry wish list and ignoring how decades of runaway media consolidation have significantly harmed local news and independent voices,” Aaron added. “We need to strengthen local voices and increase viewpoint diversity, not surrender our airwaves to an ever-smaller group of giant conglomerates.”

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Jessica Corbett is a Common Dreams staff writer.

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