Christopher Ruddy is chief executive of Newsmax Media.
While President Trump has been condemning “fake news,” his very own FCC is pursuing policies that will lead to the greatest concentration of television media power in history.
In April, under the leadership of a new chairman chosen by the president, Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission reinstated an antiquated rule that not only paves the way for the $3.9 billion merger of television groups Sinclair and Tribune but will allow other television networks to own stations reaching more than 70 percent of U.S. households.
Just weeks after that decision, Pai’s FCC proposed another rule change that is set to be put to a vote Tuesday: eliminating the requirement that TV stations maintain local studios in the markets where they are licensed. If this requirement is dropped, local news production could be moved to places such as New York and Washington as the big networks buy up local stations.
Pai’s decisions fly in the face of the FCC’s core mission to ensure that broadcasters using the public airwaves adhere to the principles of locality, diversity and competition. A bipartisan consensus has long supported these three principles.
This consensus backed a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2004 that stated that no broadcast television network can own stations reaching more than 39 percent of U.S. households. But a merged Sinclair would reach 72 percent. So how did the FCC and Sinclair circumvent Congress?
On April 20, without any public hearings, the FCC redefined UHF stations as reaching only 50 percent of homes in a given market, a definition known as the “UHF discount” that was employed back when those fuzzy UHF signals were difficult to watch and considered inferior to other channels.
However, after stations transitioned to digital broadcasting in 2010, nearly all commercial television stations moved to UHF channels, the preferred spectrum. Today almost all of these channels fully penetrate their markets.
Why Pai decided to use outdated market penetration rates that are not reality-based is not completely clear. But it is apparent that Sinclair immediately benefits, since the FCC effectively has doubled the national ownership cap from 39 percent to more than 75 percent.
Many Democrats have decried this FCC decision benefiting Sinclair, a conservative broadcaster with ties to Breitbart News. And while some conservatives are cheering the deal, the implications of FCC actions are troubling for most.
The nonsensical decision to reinstitute the UHF discount will also open the door for NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox to buy local TV stations reaching more than 70 percent of U.S. homes.
Anyone who understands how these big media companies operate can see the danger. By owning local stations, the New York-based media networks could dictate local news coverage. With the planned elimination of the local studio rule, they will have a green light to do so.
Let’s remember these “ownership caps” came into place in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan’s FCC, with a 25 percent limitation. Reagan grasped that if major networks owned most local stations, Republicans wouldn’t get a fair shake.
Over time, the cap percentage was increased, but the concept has maintained broad support. Conservatives liked local news diversity. Liberals did not want a handful of conglomerates amassing too much power.
Democrats have already raised suspicions about the commission’s decision to implement the UHF discount just three weeks before the Sinclair-Tribune merger was announced. Could those companies have known somehow that such a change was going to occur to make their merger legal?
Pai has argued the ownership cap is not meaningful in a world of pervasive social-media outlets such as Facebook and YouTube. But he ignores the findings of a recent Pew Research Center study concluding that local TV news broadcasts are still the primary way Americans get their news. To date, there is no Internet company providing serious competition to local television news.
I believe a key reason Trump won the election, and the reason the GOP dominates the House and Senate, is the way that broadcast ownership caps have engendered diversity at the local level.
The FCC’s recent actions can only lead to a massive consolidation of stations and homogenization of news. The cure for “fake news” isn’t consolidation, it is more diverse and competitive news. Ultimately, a free press is predicated on a diverse press.
Trump campaigned against this very “concentration of power.” Pai should recognize the harm his policies will do.
Before approving the Sinclair merger, the FCC has a duty to engage in a comprehensive and open media-ownership proceeding — one that seeks public comment and input from Congress. Anything less raises questions about impartiality and jeopardizes the integrity of the commission.
Eliminating ownership rules that have served us well for more than 30 years is a momentous change. The American people must play a role in that decision.
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