The U.S. Supreme Court last week upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s wrongheaded decision to allow more media consolidation.
This comes amid a crisis in local journalism, an epidemic of misinformation and growing division undermining America’s democracy. Media consolidation and the resulting disinvestment in local news are worsening these problems.
The FCC, as reconfigured by President Joe Biden, should revisit the issue and restore limits on cross-ownership of media outlets.
Specifically, the agency should restore rules preventing media companies from owning both a newspaper and radio or TV stations in a single market, and limiting the number of radio and TV stations a company can own in one market.
These rules, adopted in the 1970s, are needed to preserve the diversity of local media and prevent further consolidation.
They were whittled away starting in the 1980s and finally discarded by the FCC in 2017, prompting a federal lawsuit by Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group.
An appeals court upheld the FCC’s decision but found it didn’t adequately consider the effect on minority and female ownership of media outlets.
On April 1, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the FCC decision and accepted its ownership-diversity analysis. Justices decided that even if the FCC’s diversity data wasn’t great, its decision wasn’t capricious and the commission still had authority to change the rules.
“In assessing the effects of the rule changes on minority and female ownership, the FCC did not have perfect empirical or statistical data,” the court wrote. “But that is not unusual in day-to-day agency decision making within the executive branch.”
Also disheartening was the FCC argument, restated in the ruling, that the rise of cable and internet outlets meant these ownership rules “no longer served the agency’s public interest goals of fostering competition, localism and viewpoint diversity.”
Actually consolidation has resulted in less local news to inform voters, as shown by researchers at Stanford University and others, and reduced the diversity of media viewpoints.
The proliferation of websites and cable channels is not increasing reporting. Total investment in journalism declined, with newsroom employment across all media types and information services falling 23% from 2008 to 2019.
It’s worse among newspapers, the source of most original reporting, where newsroom jobs fell by half over that period. That occurred as waves of consolidation left 25 companies controlling around two-thirds of daily papers in the U.S.
As trustworthy local news outlets fade, Americans turn to social-media sites riddled with falsehoods and cable channels stoking division and doing little to inform voters of local issues.
The silver lining is that the Supreme Court ruling affirmed the FCC has authority to help make things right.
“The way I read it, that means the FCC has broad discretion to enact substantive, meaningful ownership rules,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC member now advocating for diversity in media ownership.
This should be a priority for President Biden’s choice to fill an open seat on the commission and selection of its permanent chair. Biden’s interim FCC chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, is a strong proponent of media diversity, competition and localism.
Much has changed since the FCC embraced media consolidation in 2017.
The Prometheus decision, and the local news and misinformation crises, should prompt a new assessment of market conditions, public interest in a diverse media ecosystem and restoration of cross-ownership rules.©2021 The Seattle Times. Visit seattletimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.