WASHINGTON — On Monday, Free Press declared that the Federal Communications Commission lacked the authority to change the broadcast-ownership cap Congress put in place.
In comments filed as part of the agency’s proposed review of its “National Television Multiple Ownership Rule,” Free Press argued that the FCC is seeking to overrule Congress by modifying or eliminating the national audience reach cap, which Congress passed in 2004 to limit the size of broadcast-TV conglomerates while ensuring diversity, localism and competition in access to the public airwaves.
Free Press also supports the elimination of the so-called UHF discount — an obsolete regulatory loophole that the FCC’s Republican majority reinstated to give big broadcasters more wiggle room to circumvent the rules.
According to Free Press, the proposed changes are being made “to suit the interests of Donald Trump’s cronies at Sinclair Broadcast Group and Fox Broadcasting Company,” which are seeking a rewrite of ownership limits to expand their control over local broadcast markets to an unprecedented degree.
The Free Press filing comes as the FCC is weighing Sinclair’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media, which would give Sinclair a broadcast reach far in excess of congressional and FCC limits on national and local media ownership. Fox Broadcasting Company, which is in negotiations to buy 10 local television stations from Sinclair, has also actively lobbied the FCC to loosen its broadcast-ownership limits and has long dodged agency rules to grow its holdings of local stations.
Free Press Policy Analyst Dana Floberg made the following statement:
“Even if the FCC proposal to modify the national cap didn’t violate congressional statute, it would harm the public interest. Since becoming FCC chair, Ajit Pai has pursued an aggressive, pro-consolidation agenda that favors the Trump administration and its political allies. The agency has needlessly gutted local ownership protections, including the main-studio rule, the eight-voices test, and the newspaper broadcast cross-ownership limitations.
“The television multiple-ownership rule is one of the last barriers standing to prevent new waves of consolidation, which time and again have smothered viewpoint diversity and outsourced local news operations, resulting in wholesale layoffs of reporters.
“The threats to local journalism and communities aren’t theoretical. Broadcast consolidation makes it much more difficult for broadcasters of color and local independent owners to acquire stations and enter the market. With fewer voices controlling our airwaves it becomes far easier for the powerful in Washington to control the message and suppress dissenting views. Sinclair is well known for requiring its local stations to air pro-Trump messages.
“The FCC doesn’t have the authority to raise or eliminate the national ownership cap set in statute — and even if it did, lifting the cap would irreparably harm the public interest by squashing competition, diversity and localism. Chairman Pai’s efforts to kick out the stops to consolidation is a blunt and obvious attempt to circumvent the national cap set by Congress, and to hand favors to those broadcasters that have demonstrated their willingness to promote Trump’s agenda.”