FCC Claims Perfectly-Timed Regulatory Handout To Sinclair Is Just Quirky Happenstance
from the total-coincidink dept
The FCC remains under heavy fire for its mindless assault on popular net neutrality protections. But the agency has also been facing widespread, bipartisan criticism for the FCC’s decision to gut decades-old media consolidation rules — specifically to help Sinclair Broadcast Group cement its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune.
Like net neutrality, media consolidation rules traditionally enjoy bipartisan support because they protect local opinion diversity and speech, preventing one company from dominating smaller competitors. The Washington Post recently offered a piece highlighting the very real, negative impact mindless M&A mania in the broadcast sector has had on the quality and diversity of local news, which in many towns is now little more than an echo chamber of substandard drivel:
“The TV news has a familiar feel to it here in west-central Pennsylvania. News stories broadcast on WJAC, the NBC affiliate in town, have appeared on nearby station WATM, the ABC affiliate. And many of those stories are broadcast on WWCP, the Fox station here, as well. Not just the same topics ? identical stories, reported by the same reporter or anchor, and repeated, almost verbatim at times, by the other stations.”
The Sinclair merger will give the company ownership of more than 230 local broadcast stations, reaching 73% of the public. Given Sinclair’s history of reporting that’s factually-dubious on a good day, those concerns are looming larger than ever as the recent viral Deadspin video made abundantly clear:
As Sinclair moved to gain regulatory approval for its latest deal, the FCC quickly moved to block any and all regulatory obstacles. Like eliminating a “main studio rule” requiring that a broadcaster actually have a physical local presence in a city it operates in to help ensure a vested interest in local issues. And when the Sinclair merger began to bump up against a longstanding media rule preventing any one local broadcaster from reaching more than 39% of households, the FCC quickly restored a discarded regulatory loophole known as the UHF discount, letting Sinclair falsely under-state its real household reach to slink in under the cap.
The FCC’s regulatory attack on media ownership rules to aid Sinclair was so blatant, it resulted in the FCC inspector general launching an investigation into whether FCC boss Ajit Pai corruptly coordinated the assault with Sinclair executives. There’s really no doubt among Pai’s fellow Commissioners like Jessica Rosenworcel, who made her thoughts on the matter perfectly clear recently:
“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.”
Amusingly, FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly (fresh off of a recent Hatch Act violation) recently tried to fire back with a blog post claiming that nearly a dozen perfectly-timed initiatives that help Sinclair were all entirely coincidental, and were simply part of the FCC’s attempt to eliminate “outdated regulations”:
“Any benefit to Sinclair was residual and non-intentional. At the same time, the entire debate misses the bigger picture that I witnessed firsthand in Arizona this week: that the changing marketplace is causing tremendous challenges to legacy broadcasters forced to abide by outdated and irrelevant ownership limitations and Commission rules. My priority has been to remove these outdated burdens imposed by the Commission that no longer serve the public interest or make sense, so that broadcasters are able to survive and thrive in the current competitive landscape. ”
Like net neutrality, FCC evidence of the “burden” these longstanding rules create for broadcasters is utterly absent. And the only thing the 39% ownership cap was a burden to was Sinclair and its merger. That the elimination of this rule might also help a few lumbering giants grow impossibly larger isn’t really much of a defense, and critics find the timing just too perfect for O’Rielly’s claims to be even remotely believable:
?Everything that Sinclair needed to get done seemed to happen exactly when they needed it to get done,? David Goldman, chief counsel for communications issues for the House Energy & Commerce Committee told Motherboard in a phone interview…
“O’Rielly can say this is all just part of the current majority?s plan to deregulate everything under the sun, without regard for who benefits the most, but that’s missing the point,? argeed Matt Wood, Policy Director for Free Press, one of the organizations fighting the merger. “Sinclair couldn’t even contemplate its massive takeover of Tribune without this relief, which the Commission has been exceptionally eager to grant from day one of Pai’s Chairmanship,? Wood said.
Pai’s office is rushing ahead undaunted, last week opening the merger back up to public comment in the hopes of nudging things along. The FCC is rushing, in part, because of the fact that consumer groups are challenging the restoration of the UHF Discount in court, arguing that there was no other reason to restore the obscure and unnecessary loophole aside from helping Sinclair. Again, the FCC’s decision to barrel forth before the court case is settled didn’t sit well with Rosenworcel:
The @FCC just asked for public comment on the Sinclair merger, speeding the way for regulatory approval. But the @FCC is still waiting on a court decision about how many stations one company can own. No way it should rush ahead now before the court acts. The rule of law matters.
— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) May 21, 2018
Does it? We’ll see. Should consumer advocates win that suit, Sinclair’s merger (at least as written) will be DOA, and the FCC will be left trying to find other “entirely coincidental” ways to try and rubber stamp the broadcasting giant’s M&A ambitions.