On March 2, 2023, we filed a comment to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as part of its 2022 Quadrennial. Every four years since the passage of the 1996 Telecom Act, the FCC must review its radio and television ownership rules to make sure the rules remain “necessary in the public interest as the result of competition.” This process is called the Quadrennial Review.
The FCC relies on the comments it receives during this public notice process to shape their policy decisions. They expect those making comments to do research and provide data. More information about the FCC is available in the FCC Quick Guide.
Our letter to the FCC is posted here and below.
Dear Mr. Horan:
The Media and Democracy Project, and our allies who have signed on to this submission, welcome this opportunity to raise our concerns about the current media ownership rules. We are an all volunteer grassroots community formed in 2020 that believes it is essential that media meet the critical information needs of citizens as an essential bulwark of an inclusive representative democracy. We promote civic engagement to demand a more informative and pro-democracy media. We comment as a group of concerned citizens and critical news consumers, and speak for the public interest.
Below we cover the following major points. In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission weakened the rules which for decades had assured that the public received genuinely local news and protected the public airwaves from dominance by major corporations. We urge the Commission to reverse those actions. In particular we recommend that the FCC:
- Strengthen the Local TV Ownership Rules
- Strengthen Local Radio Ownership Rules
- Prevent Shared Services or Joint Sales Agreements from undermining the Ownership Rules - Restore the Broadcast Station Cross-Ownership Rules
- Protect the National TV limits by removing the UHF Discount
- Restore the Main Studio Rule
We also make recommendations to strengthen the regulatory process. We present extensive analysis of why action is essential to preserve and improve localism and diversity – central aspects of the Commission’s mandate and goals – and that the ownership rules remain necessary in the public interest. We recommend active measures to increase diversity of broadcast ownership and staff. Diverse perspectives and local ownership are essential to preserve a healthy local news ecosystem that serves our democracy and builds true community.
Thank you for your consideration.
Main body of our letter The Media Bureau asks “whether the media ownership rules remain ‘necessary in the public interest as the result of competition.’ ” We will show not only that the current media ownership rules remain necessary, but that the rules must also be strengthened to achieve the Commission’s mandate and to serve the public interest. The request for comment further asks whether the rules “deliver sufficient ‘returns’ for consumers with respect to competition, localism, and diversity?” We demonstrate that the rules are failing on all three measures. The rules allow single companies to entirely dominate smaller markets, that widespread networks undermine localism, and that diversity is abysmal and shows no signs of improvement, even over long periods of time. To support our assertions, we provide limited data of our own while relying heavily on research from other organizations. In response to the Commission's request for studies and evidence, we want to register a strong objection that the burden of doing that work should fall on groups like ours or other public commenters. While we have presented what evidence we can, the Commission is much better-positioned to do the thorough analysis that is needed. While we commend the FCC for its studies of ownership diversity, we call on the Commission to do the same for other important issues including concentration of ownership by broadcast market and diversity of staff at broadcast companies. We provide some background in response to the FCC’s request for “additional information
regarding legal or economic factors, changes, or issues that the Commission should consider, evaluate, and/or address.” We cite extensive studies showing that emerging media such as online news or podcasts are inadequate as replacements for traditional news media. All of the above supports the recommendations we provide in the final section. First, the Commission must do more of its own analysis to document the current state of diversity, localism and competition, rather than asking the public for that information. Second, the Commission should, to the extent possible, reverse the loosening of ownership rules that was recently implemented or, at a minimum, prevent further degradation of competition. Third, the Commission should take active measures to improve diversity of ownership and staffing of broadcast outlets. These measures are vital to preserve the level of access to a full spectrum of news and information that is essential for a well-functioning democracy.
More specific comments and support for the recommendations Ownership Rules Concentration of ownership in broadcast media is problematic for reasons we discuss at length in later sections. Recognizing the importance of this issue, the Commission has promulgated rules that limit consolidation in five different dimensions. TV Ownership Rules, Radio Ownership Rules, Broadcast Station Cross-Ownership Rules, and the National Television Ownership Rule, and the Dual-Ownership Rule preventing mergers between the major networks. Since 2016, the Commission has severely weakened the rules based on arguments that the media ecosystem has radically changed. While there have indeed been significant changes and readership of printed newspapers has greatly declined, the broadcast TV and radio, as well as newspapers, are still an essential part of the news ecosystem. They are the major source of news for many Americans and the sole source for some. Even though many Americans now get their news and information via social media, those platforms are merely conduits for news produced elsewhere, often from professional news organizations including TV and radio stations. Three-quarters of Americans are not in the top ten media markets, instead living in smaller cities, suburbs or rural markets with many fewer news options. The FCC ownership rules were established to prevent scenarios that are common today, wherein one or two corporate entities dominate a market and major national corporations are the dominant providers of “local” news, rather than genuinely local enterprises. The public interest information needs of millions of Americans are not being met by these essentially carpet-bagging media conglomerates with nothing invested in the communities they purport to be providing with useful information. Referring to the rules as they existed prior to 2017 FCC Commissioner, and now Chair, Jessica Rosenworcel wrote “The agency prevented a single entity from owning multiple television stations and radio stations in the same market. These policies were designed to sustain media diversity, localism, and competition. Those values may not be especially trendy, but I think they are solid. I think they support journalism and jobs. I think they play a critical role in advancing the mix of facts we all need to make decisions about our lives, our communities, and our country.” In essence, we are calling for the rules to be restored to those that Chair Rosenworcel was praising. Unfortunately, Commissioner Rosenworcel’s position was defeated 3-2 and the rules she was praising were weakened in many ways. We urge the Commission to reverse the rule changes that were implemented in the past five years and restore the limits that served the public well for decades. Local Television Multiple Ownership
The current rule limits any one entity from owning more than two stations in a local TV market and forbids an entity from buying two of the top five by market share. This sounds reasonable – until it is scrutinized. Many markets will have only five stations and so a company can own 40% of them, including the largest one. In addition, while the second station owned by the largest station in a market must be the fifth largest, or smaller, by market share when it is purchased, there is nothing to ensure that that remains so. A major corporation could well purchase the number five station and then increase its transmission power and otherwise invest to grow its share. So, it is likely that over time companies will often own two of the top four, and possibly the two biggest stations, in a market. Even worse, the rule allows the FCC to waive the restriction so we can be sure that whenever industry-captured regulators are in place, concentration of TV ownership will become the norm.
This is not just a theoretical concern. Baton Rouge, LA, which is one of the top 100 TV markets, has only five full power stations. Nexstar owns and broadcasts 3 subchannels. They also own a Class A station. As we understand the current rules, they could upgrade the Class A station to full power, or purchase one of the smaller existing full power stations, and broadcast subchannels from that station. That would put them in a position to be a dominant broadcaster in the market. In addition, the ownership of more than one station by a single company in a market is deceptive. Viewers may think they are getting different content when they change the channel, but this is often not the case when the same company owns both stations. There are probably many other medium and smaller markets that are similarly subject to such concentration. We have not had the time or expertise to do a thorough analysis. And, in any event, even if the concentration is not problematic now, if the current rules are allowed to remain, the concentration will get more pronounced. Better to forestall it now by restoring the pre-2017 rules than to try to address a bad situation after it is allowed to occur.
Local Radio Ownership As with TV, the loosened rules approved in 2017 appear reasonable but have major flaws. For example: “In a radio market hosting between 15 and 29 radio stations, an entity may own up to six radio stations, no more than four of which may be in the same service.” Owning six stations in a market with 15 stations might be tolerable if all 15 stations were comparable, but they aren’t. Stations differ enormously in transmission capacity, and therefore range, and some are extremely small. So, if there are four tiny community broadcasters, as is not uncommon, it is clear that one entity could completely dominate the airwaves. Again, the current facts on the ground also show that there is already a substantial amount of concentration in small and medium-size markets. The Ithaca, NY market illustrates our concern. Saga Communications controls half of the FM stations, but this greatly understates their dominance because two of those stations have by far the most transmission power while five of the stations which they don’t own are tiny – with less than 0.1% of the power of Saga’s larger stations. So, while numerically they are only 50% of the stations – which is bad, in itself – more practically they control nearly 80% of the transmission power. This shows how any rule that is based solely on numbers of stations, ignoring their relative power and range, is likely to have loopholes. Elimination of Broadcast Station Cross-Ownership Rules
In 2017, the Commission eliminated rules banning cross-ownership between broadcast and newspapers and between TV and radio. While there are more different sources of news, they are often not good substitutes for traditional news (see discussion below). In addition, particularly in small markets, newspapers are closing so if a TV station buys the newspaper, it may be the only newspaper in town. While some might argue that forbidding the purchase might result in the newspaper closing altogether, we think that industry representations that these rules are designed to benefit small news organizations are totally disingenuous. If the goal is to help newspapers and small broadcasters, there are many, more effective ways to do so.
Dual Television Network Ownership
FCC rules effectively prohibit a merger between any two of the big four broadcast television networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. This rule has not been changed and we have not heard any proposals to change it. We certainly think it is essential that it be maintained.
Ban Joint Sales Agreements and Shared Services Agreements As a financial advisory firm explains “These deals [are] made to get around the law -- which are known as joint sales agreements or JSAs -- work as follows: big Company A owns Station X, a top four station. Company A wants to buy Station Y, also a top four station in that same market, but the FCC doesn't allow that. To circumvent that Company A creates another company that only exists on paper -- call it Company Sham. Company Sham buys Station Y and makes an agreement with Company A in which Company A does all the work (and receives all the benefit) in running Station Y. On paper Company Sham owns Station Y but in reality all the benefits of ownership go to Company A, which effectively has circumvented the FCC.” [Emphasis added]
Shared Services Agreements (SSAs) are even broader. Clearly the Commission should not allow a mechanism which has the clear goal of circumventing the Commission’s rules. The Commission wisely curtailed their use in 2014 but unfortunately the decision was reversed in 2017. The original rules should be restored.
National Television Ownership Limits, UHF Discount and Main Studio Rule We recognize that the National Television Ownership Limits and “Main Studio Rule” are not formally subject to the Quadrennial Review. But they are closely related matters and we believe it is important to consider them in this context. The 39% limit on the share of national households that one company’s stations may reach is, if anything, too high. The decision to reinstate the “UHF discount” effectively weakened it. One company that controls many local news outlets will inevitably move increasingly to air homogenized content if for no other reason than economy. This is particularly true when the “local” news desks can be consolidated as the removal of the “Main Studio Rule” means the reporting does not need to be located in the community they are reporting on.
An owner of multiple stations can decrease production costs dramatically by substituting unified content everywhere for locally-focused, diverse content produced specifically for multiple audiences. A study by Gregory J. Martin, of Stanford, and Joshua McCrain, of the University of Utah, pointed to the FCC’s 2018 elimination of the “main studio rule” – which required broadcast radio and TV owners to maintain a physical studio in each broadcast area – as facilitating and incentivizing a shift away from locally focused coverage by a consolidating broadcast market. Therefore, we urge the Commission to restore the “Main Studio Rule” and remove the UHF discount that is outmoded given current technology.
Summary We cannot express our concerns better than then Commissioner Mignon Clyburn did when objecting to the weakening of the protection of the public when it was initiated in 2017. “Now if you were to stop someone randomly on the street and ask them who owns their local television or radio station, how many people would be able to answer? Would they know if two out of the top four television stations in their community had the same owner and a third station was affiliated with the stations through a sharing agreement? Would they know that their local news anchor is reporting a story using the same script as dozens of other stations around the country, or even another station in their own community? … the floodgates to more consolidation will come without transparency or accountability.”
Importance of local news Is Localism Worth Special Efforts? Yes, on Many Grounds.
A growing body of research shows that localism in media is vital to the public’s well being. Locally oriented news and information media keep communities informed about the public issues that most directly affect them while also alerting them to health emergencies, environmental dangers, important traffic and transportation bulletins, weather forecasts and much more.
Examples of the hard-to-replace value local news media bring to communities include the following:
Communities have long depended on local news media for the full story of city council or school board debates on policy matters that closely affect them. But as local reporting dwindles, citizens must rely on the social media or blog accounts of individual panel members or citizens, which often provide no context and may be heavily biased. Frequently no publicly accessible accounts of such public events appear at all.
Many of the public policies that most closely affect Americans originate at the state and local level. Research now demonstrates that the true effects of such policies – good and bad – have often become known only through investigative reporting in local media. The many documented examples include changed rates of food-borne illnesses in L.A. County related to new public-health rules for restaurants; changed rates of fatal police shootings in Washington, DC, following a new police training regimen; and widely differing rates of mold-related illnesses among South Carolina college campuses that had differing systems of tracking the outbreaks.
An increasing amount of academic research documents that a decrease in local news reporting leads to a decline in citizen engagement, including voter participation in local and state elections.
Studies show business corruption increases when no local reporters are watching. A Harvard Business School study, for example, used Violation Tracker, a public database, to track corporate malfeasance in 45 U.S. counties after local media outlets closed. Examining violations and penalties issued by government agencies, the research revealed that violations at public companies rose by 1.1 percent and financial penalties incurred rose by 15 percent. Toxic emissions – which companies must report even when they’re not illegal – rose almost 20 percent after local news reporting ended in the communities.
Losing local news reporting also leads to more state and local government inefficiency and corruption, according to emerging research. A 2018 study, for example, reveals that after state and local news outfits stop reporting, government salaries rise faster, deficits increase, and government borrowing costs rise by between 5 and 11 basis points. Local and state government transparency also wanes as officials face fewer reporter requests for information and commentary.
Locally focused news and information remains a valued and vital resource for many. Nearly a third of U.S. adults (31%) follow local news very closely, with Americans over age 65 (42%), Black adults (46%) and those with a high school education or less showing considerably more interest (36%). These same groups prefer getting local information via the TV rather than online.
Local News and Information Are Becoming Scarcer in Print and Broadcast Media
Newspapers, of course, are where the dropoff in local news coverage appears most starkly. Between 2004 and 2022, the number of U.S. daily newspapers dropped from about 1,500 to 1,250, with 100 of that number changing to weeklies. Over the same period, the number of non-daily papers fell from about 7,400 to 5,100. As of December 2020, nearly 50% of U.S. counties had only one newspaper, usually a weekly, and more than 6% of counties had no dedicated newspaper at all.
Rural residents, especially, often have no media source dedicated to providing them with local news and information. A strong majority of rural residents – 57% – say their local media mostly cover other nearby areas rather than their own. That’s roughly the opposite of what urban residents say. Sixty-two percent of urban dwellers say their local news media mainly cover the area they live in.
But while the FCC has long declared that localism is a top priority in its broadcast-media ownership rules, researchers find that broadcast TV and radio actually provide little local news and information.
Many communities that lack access to a local newspaper rely on television and radio for their local news and information needs. However, research shows that local television news typically highlights national stories or uses the “if it bleeds, it leads” principle to pick and choose among stories, as it seeks to entice viewers to increase ad revenues. That means lessening coverage of local government and business to prioritize tales of crime, car accidents, and natural disasters, including ones that occur far outside the local area.
Important segments of the U.S. still value it and use it as their primary source for news. Broadcast TV newsroom staffing has remained largely static between 2008 and 2020, even as newspaper newsroom staff plummeted from 71,070 to 30,820. And broadcast radio newsroom staffing dropped from 4,570 to 3,360 nationwide over the period.
While some see public broadcast TV and radio as most likely to step into the local news gap, facts on the ground cast doubt. Only about a quarter of public-media outlets create any original content – news or otherwise. And much of the content labeled “local news” on public TV and radio consists not of original reporting but of “talk shows” in which moderators interview reporters who’ve covered a story for a different news outlet.
Research also demonstrates that ownership consolidation incentivizes a focus on national news, not local news and information. Analyzing over 7 million news segments across over 700 local TV stations, Gregory J. Martin, of Stanford, and Joshua McCrain, of the University of Utah, found that stations acquired by Sinclair Broadcast Group saw a 25 percent rise in national news coverage after the purchase, with that coverage largely replacing local news reporting. And that occurred despite the fact that local viewers expressed no preference for increased national coverage.
The new Sinclair national reporting also featured a hard-right slant, which also didn’t necessarily represent the desires of a majority of local viewers. But while Martin and McCrain conclude that consolidated ownership by a single entity of multiple local outlets does open the door to viewpoint uniformity among all the outlets, they also hypothesize that economies of scale can easily drive an abandonment of localism, even when a station owner doesn’t seek to advance any agenda.
As we have made clear, genuinely local news coverage is important both to inform people and as oversight to reduce both government and corporate misbehavior. Considering the decline in local newspapers, especially rural newspapers, and the fact that lower-income and people of color are especially reliant on radio and TV, broadcast news is at least as important as in the past.
Importance of Diversity
News Media Diversity Is Crucial in a Multicultural Society But it Is Bad and Not Improving
From the earliest days of radio the FCC – and its predecessor, the Federal Radio Commission – have encouraged diversity in broadcasting. The Commission has said it seeks diversity of viewpoints, with content expressing a variety of perspectives; diversity of programming, with stations using a variety of program formats; diversity of outlets, with multiple independently owned outlets operating in each geographic market; and further diversity of outlets, with male- and female-owned outlets operating in every market.
Broadcast news is a hugely influential medium that affects how we see ourselves and how we see – and treat – people who are different from us. Without diversity in our broadcast news and information media, the stories that matter to many populations don’t get told accurately…or, in many cases, don’t get told at all.
Ownership diversity is the only sort of diversity that’s currently measured. But it matters. The owners of broadcast stations directly or indirectly hire the reporters who research and tell the stories and, especially, the editors, producers and executives who decide which stories a station will pursue and ultimately air.
For this reason, ownership stands as a proxy for the level of diversity that exists in the broadcast media . The Commission has reported every two years on ownership – defined as who has majority voting rights – in the nation’s broadcast TV and radio stations, broken out by gender, race and ethnicity. They’ve vowed to use that body of statistical information to find means to increase diversity.
But the statistics so far show no meaningful change.
From 2009 through 2017, the Commission’s top-line stat showed the distribution of majority voting rights among all broadcast TV and radio stations. In those years, the stats mainly made random-seeming jumps. For example, in 2009, women were reported to hold majority voting rights at 5.5% of the nation’s broadcast stations. In 2017 this statistic was actually slightly lower at 5.3% in 2017. This appears to have improved to 9% in 2021 but the improvement seems mostly due to format changes which make direct comparisons to earlier years difficult. The comparable percentage for 2017 appears to be 7.6%, so over 12 years there has been little, if any, improvement.
Similarly, Black persons were found to hold a majority interest in 1% of the nation’s broadcast stations in 2009 and 0.9% again in 2017. The two most recent reports show ownership data as of Oct. 1, 2019, and Oct.1, 2021. Black persons held a majority in just 2% of the commercial stations in both 2019 and 2021, according to the recent FCC reports (again, this is not strictly comparable to the earlier statistics). Hispanic persons had a majority interest in 6% of commercial stations in 2021 while they represent 18% of the U.S. population. Asians held majority interest in 1% of stations in 2021 and both American Indian/Alaska Native persons and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders persons are shown to have held majority interest in 0% of stations.
These are data for all stations. The statistics for full power television stations are even worse. Given the change in reporting, it is unclear if there has been any improvement at all in more than a decade. What is clear is that the ownership situation continues to be wildly unbalanced.
Lack of Diversity Carries Over to Newsroom Staff – With Real Consequences
The FCC doesn’t produce stats on diversity among newsroom workers, but those who do find an employee group that’s more likely to be White and male than U.S. workers overall.
Newsroom staff include reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers across print, broadcast and online news publishing. More than three-quarters (77%) of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic Whites. That’s compared to 65% of all U.S. workers who are non-Hispanic Whites.
About six out of ten newsroom workers (61%) are men, compared to 53% of all workers.
The race and ethnicity disparities exist across all age groups of newsroom employees, although the disparities are smaller among younger workers. We are glad to see that the tide does seem to have turned for gender disparity among the youngest generation of employees. Only 51% of newsroom staff ages 18 to 29 are men, the same proportion as in the workforce overall.
And in a 2022 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that Hispanic workers are underrepresented in media jobs virtually across the board, with little change occurring between 2010 and 2019, GAO called for developing more data to help devise solutions.
Meanwhile, an extensive survey of journalism research spanning the decades from the 1970s onward, reveals an important mechanism through which the lack of newsroom diversity clearly translates into a severe lack of viewpoint diversity.
In original research conducted in the 2010s and a major review of multiple newsroom studies conducted beginning in the 1970s, Columbia University School of Journalism research fellow James G. Robinson finds that most journalists – then and now – hold a narrow, limiting conception of the audience they address in their work – visualizing an audience that’s mainly an image of themselves.
Robinson’s work highlights both the necessity – and difficulty – of advancing viewpoint diversity in the newsroom, and calls for extensive new research on ways to “narrow the gap between the audiences journalists have in mind and the audiences their outlets actually serve.”
Asked for whom they write, journalists in all media, over at least five decades, have uniformly responded that they write for four groups: the editors and publishers at their media outlets; their fellow journalists, especially those they personally know and befriend; their sources; and their close friends and family.
This instinctive bias toward ‘known readers threaten[s] to exclude other, less familiar reader segments, affecting the choices journalists [make] while selecting, reporting and crafting stories,” Robinson said.
Editors and publishers – the people often directly hired by the White male owners of American media – have long been named by journalists as their most important audience, Robinson and other researchers he studied have said. “When I asked journalists for whom they were writing, producing or editing,” said one newsroom researcher, “they always began with their superiors, and some went no further.”
Most journalists consistently name close acquaintances inside and outside journalism as their most important audience, and indeed the only audience most envision. Furthermore, “the upscale backgrounds of most journalists,” who comprise a “national professional elite,” mean the audiences they envision likely share few characteristics with other members of the public, whom they’re charged with informing, researchers say.
“I met only one television journalist who correctly saw the audience as consisting of persons mainly of working-class background,” one researcher told Robinson. “Having himself come from a blue-collar home, he argued that television news should be made more attractive to blue-collar viewers, but he also added that he did not know how to do so, having long ago lost track of the people among whom he grew up.”
These diversity-challenged U.S. newsrooms show blind spots that compromise their ability to gather and provide news and information suitable for our increasingly diverse society. For example, a Pew study reveals that most Americans who’ve ever spoken to a local journalist are just who you’d expect, based on data about the newsroom workforce.
While 21% of Americans say they have spoken with a local journalist, White people – at 23% – have been most likely to have such a conversation. Only 14% of Hispanics and 19% of Black say they’ve talked to a local journalist. In addition, those with at least a college degree are about twice as likely as those with a high school degree or less to have spoken with a local journalist. (27% vs. 14%, respectively.) And while 26% of those with incomes of $75,000 or more have spoken with a local journalist, only 20% of those earning between $30,000 and $74,999 and 17% of those making less than $30,000 have.
Active measures are needed to improve diversity Tightening the ownership rules to prevent further ownership consolidation is a necessary step. But to move towards a truly diverse broadcast industry, the Commission needs to take active measures to promote diversity. We understand the impediments to measures that explicitly take account of race but we believe that programs can be designed that will achieve these goals within the constraints the courts have created in this area. We plan to file a reply comment that further explores these possibilities.
Comments on media environment Online Entities Aren’t Well Suited to Embrace Localism
The Commission also seeks comment on whether marketplace developments – especially the growing popularity and availability of audio and video streaming – may make crafting new broadcast media rules to bolster localism and diversity unnecessary. But little current evidence suggests that online outlets are ready to offer solid news and information services in the public interest that can provide an adequate replacement for broadcast news.
Rural areas most often lack local news and information media such as dedicated newspapers, TV and radio stations, and most digital startups focus on population-dense communities. A full 95% of local digital startups are located in urban areas.
Overall, digital alternatives serving local information needs remain scarce, despite increases in both corporate and philanthropic funding. Between 2019 and 2022, for example, 64 new digital-only state and local news sites popped up. However, nearly as many older sites closed shop during the same period. Those that closed were mostly for-profit sites serving specific local areas. Most were funded by advertising revenue from local businesses, which dried up during the COVID-19 epidemic. Most of the newly opened sites were nonprofits. We are heartened to see the growth of independent, nonprofit news models but they have not yet achieved anything close to the scale and reach needed to offset the loss in localism and diversity that are lost by increasing consolidation of broadcast TV and radio.
As of 2022, there were 545 digital-only state and local news sites nationwide, with most employing six or fewer full-time reporters. Each state has at least one digital-only news and information outlet. However, many of those are hyper-focused and cover a single topic such as education, politics or the environment, rather than a broader slate of news. And most sites continue to be in larger cities, especially wealthier urban areas. Although digital newsrooms increased staffing considerably from 2008 to 2020, this fails to overcome the dramatic loss of 29,620 staffersacross the entire spectrum of media from 2008 to 2020.
What’s more, digital divides among the population mean many fewer people can easily access online local sites than have had access to radio and TV news broadcasts.
For example, among the White population, 83% own a laptop or desktop computer, compared to 66% of people identifying as Black who own either. For home broadband, 78% of whites report access compared with 65% of those who identify as Black and 58% of who identify as Hispanic. In addition, 22.3% of rural residents lack all access to reliable high-speed broadband, as do 27.7% of people living on Tribal lands, compared to 1.5% of urban residents who do.
Moreover, many working and retired people are simply priced out of high-speed internet at home. Prices average between $65 and $125 a month and can range as high as $200 or more. That means that more than 40% of people with annual household incomes below $30,000 don’t have access to high-speed internet at home. Most rely on smartphones for online access, but many in-depth and investigative news articles published on online sites aren’t easily accessible on phones.
Broadcast Stations Face Few “Public Interest” Requirements, but Online Sites Face None
In return for permission to use part of the broadcast spectrum, broadcast radio and television stations face some obligations to consider the public’s interest in their operations.
For example, broadcast media may not falsely announce “hoax” catastrophes that could jeopardize public safety if believed; they must provide reasonable access to ad time to all federal candidates; if they give free airtime to a candidate they must offer equal time to all candidates for that office; they must maintain files of all candidate requests to buy ad time; they may not air obscene programming; they must accurately describe and conduct by clearly stated rules any audience contest; and more.
The Commission even pledges to investigate stations for news distortion if it receives “compelling” documented evidence – from individuals with direct personal knowledge – of intentional news falsification conducted by station management.
Admittedly, these requirements are only minimal public-interest safeguards. Nevertheless, when considering whether to weaken broadcast ownership rules based on the argument that online sites constitute a good substitute for broadcast news, one should at least consider the fact that online media face no public-interest obligations of any kind, nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future.
A new Brookings Institution study of podcasts shows how podcasts considered “news” sites by most people produce high levels of mis- and disinformation and are structured in ways that may make them even more influential spreaders of false information than broadcast media. Creating a podcast series that misleads is exceptionally easy to do. Unlike becoming a radio reporter, for example, podcasting has virtually no barriers to entry. A single individual can run a podcast entirely on their own with no credentials and not even a boss or colleague to question their reporting.
Asking commenters to produce evidence biases outcomes against the public interest
We also feel compelled to note that the current regulatory process is biased against the public interest. The Commission’s comment request asks for “empirical and statistical evidence” and “detailed analysis”. This is an undue burden to place if you genuinely want to allow those representing the public to have a fair voice in the process. Many members of our group are highly trained professionals, a some of us have commented on regulatory matters in the domains of our professions, are quantitatively trained, or are experienced journalists. We have given specific examples and cited academic research. But we do not have the time, resources or access to information needed to provide the substantive evidence or broad studies that really are needed. If the Commission relies on commenters to provide the bulk of the evidence, it will inevitably skew the process in favor of industry representatives, especially the largest and best funded ones. That is the basis for our recommendation that the Commission itself perform the needed analyses so that they are done in a capable and unbiased manner.
Recommendations: Based on the arguments and evidence presented above, we believe the FCC current ownership rules have utterly failed to move the U.S. broadcast media structure closer to its goals of localism and diversity. To the contrary, the current rules have allowed for increased dominance of large media companies and undermined both diversity and localism. What’s more, these rules were only recently implemented and so it is likely that we have yet to see the worst of their impacts. Fortunately, that means there is still time to forestall them.
Therefore, we urge the Commission to restore the stronger rules that were in place in 2016 and earlier. As now FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel noted at the time “[W]e are not going to remedy what ails our media today with this rush of new consolidation. We are not going to fix our ability to ferret fact from fiction by doubling down on just a handful of companies controlling our public airwaves.
Specifically, we recommend that the Federal Communications Commission do the following:
Perform a thorough review of ownership concentration in smaller broadcast markets. As we noted above, the current rules allow for one or two corporations to dominate a broadcast market.
In 2017, then FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn urged her “colleagues to initiate a proceeding that would build a comprehensive set of data examining the impact of ownership diversity on the broadcast marketplace. The proceeding should also examine how further media consolidation would impact localism and competition.” Such a study was needed then and even more so now.
Until such reviews are performed and find that the 2017 loosening of the rules did not, and will not, damage localism and diversity, the prudent course is to return the rules to those that served the public reasonably well for decades.
Therefore, the Commission should reverse the loosening of the Ownership Rules that have been promulgated since 2017. This includes all of the following: - Restore the TV Ownership Rules that were in place in 2016. Restore the Radio Ownership Rules that were in place in 2016. - Treat stations controlled under Shared Services Agreements or Joint Sales Agreements as though they were owned by the controlling company for the above rules. - Restore the Newspaper/Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rules. - Maintain or reduce the 39% limit in the National Television Ownership rule to assure that broadcast - TV will not be dominated by a small number of large corporations. - Remove the UHF discount so that the 39% limit really will mean what it says. - Restore the “main studio rule” to assure that local news is broadcast from a station with a true local presence.
The FCC should redouble its efforts to encourage diversity in both ownership and staffing. We recognize the constraints that the courts have placed on measures that explicitly target race but we believe that the Commission can find ways to achieve these goals without racially-targeting programs. We intend to submit a comment during the reply period that explores this important issue further. It is crucial that we find effective means to ensure access to a full spectrum of news and information for all residents of our diverse nation as it is an essential element of our democracy.
The Media and Democracy Project
Jonathan Reiss, KC2TWI Marcia Clemmitt Brian Hansbury Holley Atkinson Carolyn Barclift Albert Franklin Noelle Pellowski Milo Vassallo Cecily Young Other organizations:
Broward for Progress Build Back Better USA Indivisible Hawaii Indivisible Media City Burbank Let's Talk Democracy Occupy the SEC Press Club of Southeast Texas Secure Elections Network
Anisia Ayon Matthew J Baggott Noreen Bagley Mimi Beams Dave Bradley Angel Braveboy Melissa Cannon Stephanie Chaplin Amélie Cherlin Annia Ciezadlo Dean Clatone Robert Coover Jessica Craven Ruchira S. Datta Jean Dittmyer Alison Feldman Claire Felong Kesi Felton Bruno Franco Laurie Woodward Garcia Maya George Lisa H. Gibson Fred J. Gitner Leigh Glazer Rosa Goodrum Sarah Grisham Steve Gualdoni Gary Guss Roma Halatyn Mary Hansen Stacey Hartman Ben Hemler Jay Henderson Rolaine Hochstein Barbara Hofrenning Kathy Karlin King Kaufman Deborah Kaufmann Emmanuel Krasner Michael Alan Krasner Cindy Lang Lois Langham Mary Lawrence Sally Lelong Elke Lerman Abbi Lichtenstein Guy Long Risa M Mandell Mark Meeks Ida Messana Bruce Mirken Trish Nelson Kim Osborn Trisha Ouellette Emily Pardee Martin Pelrmutter Danny Pinsker Joy Pinsky David P Plumer Enzo Pontrelli Laurie-Ann Preston Rochelle Rocha-Howell Bruce Rosen James Shanahan Madeline Shapiro Naima Shea Steven Simons Todd Snyder Sujata Subramanian Sheldon Teicher Akshat Tewary Jane Torres Carol H Tucker Susan Wallace Lynne Williams Mary Katherine Williston Lynda Woolard