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On Sunday, New York Times journalists Sheera Frenkel and Tiffany Hsu wrote on a topic that’s gone underreported: the role that local radio and television stations play in spreading lies about COVID vaccines. 

While Facebook and YouTube deserve a lot of the heat they’ve been getting for business models that amplify such lies, they’re not the only media that profit from popularizing disinformation about COVID-19. Local broadcast outlets that rely on often sketchy syndicated programming have helped fuel the vaccine hesitancy that’s prolonging the pandemic and costing us many thousands of lives. 

“One radio show that appears to have been part of that effect is Coast to Coast AM, which is syndicated on 640 local stations and reaches nearly three million weekly listeners,” write Frenkel and Hsu. “Its host, George Noory, has in recent years interviewed Dr. Tenpenny, Robert Kennedy Jr., a lawyer and anti-vaccine activist, and Erin Elizabeth, the founder of the website Health Nut News and a vaccine skeptic.”

The Center for Countering Digital Hate recently identified Tenpenny, Kennedy Jr. and Elizabeth as members of the “Disinformation Dozen,” the 12 people responsible for up to 65 percent of anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter.

Unfortunately, the Times doesn’t devote much space to the forces that make it possible for a radio program like Coast to Coast AM to become so widely syndicated. Those forces include rampant media consolidation and the ensuing loss of local reporting due to widespread layoffs.

Laying the ground for disinformation

For decades, the Federal Communications Commission has failed to fulfill its central mandates: to promote localism, diversity and competition on the public airwaves through the allocation of broadcast licenses.

The resulting industry consolidation and its related economies of scale have created an enormous decline in the number of people working to gather and distribute in-depth local news.

The local newspaper industry has suffered even greater losses. Over the past 20 years, print outlets were often loaded up with debt as their owners — including but not limited to predatory hedge funds like Alden Global Capital — went on consolidation binges. And these outlets’ struggles have been compounded by the migration of local-ad spending to cheaper and more targeted placements online.

To fill the local-news gap, conglomerated broadcast owners have turned to syndicated content. So instead of those 640 local-AM stations featuring reporting from local journalists, these outlets — many of which are owned by the same company — instead rely on syndicated content.

For example, the vaccine deniers at Coast to Coast AM benefit from having their program carried on multiple local radio stations owned by iHeartMedia, the nationwide radio conglomerate formerly known as Clear Channel Communications.

For years, the FCC and Congress buckled to pressure from powerful broadcast-industry lobbyists and relaxed broadcast-media-ownership limits. The colossus that was Clear Channel (which once owned and operated more than 1,200 stations) was a direct result of this deregulation. Prior to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — which permitted radio and television broadcasters to own more stations than previously allowed — Clear Channel owned just 43 radio stations.

The “synergies” of such runaway consolidation have been wholesale layoffs in local newsrooms and — to fill the news holes left behind — the syndication of cheap content across conglomerates’ networks of hundreds of local stations.

Coast to Coast AM’s vaccine misinformation is the spawn of the FCC’s historical failure to do its job. The agency has allowed local stations to become overrun by corporate giants that have little interest in vetting the syndicated disinformation they pump out over our airwaves.

So while it’s easy to blame Facebook and YouTube for business models that thrive on the spread of disinformation, we can’t ignore the legacy of broadcast consolidation that’s built a media system that puts lives at risk.

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