The FCC is not going to do a review of Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s license despite a request by a eleven Democratic U.S. Senators and one independent. Chairman Ajit Pai sent a letter to the Senators, which include Maria Cantwell, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, writing he’s refusing their request because he wants to protect the First Amendment.
A free media is vital to our democracy. That is why during my time at the Commission I have consistently opposed any effort to infringe upon the freedom of the press and have fought to eliminate regulations that impede the gathering and dissemination of news. Most relevant here, I have repeatedly made clear that the FCC does not have the authority to revoke a license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast.
I understand that you disliked or disagreed with the content of particular broadcasts, but I can hardly think of an action more chilling of free speech than the federal government investigating a broadcast station because of disagreement with its news coverage or promotion of that coverage
Pai is absolutely correct in this decision, just like he was when he rebuked President Donald Trump’s tweet about pulling NBC’s broadcast license. There’s been at least one column noting Pai took longer to rebuke Trump than he did Cantwell, Sanders, et al, but there is a slight difference between a tweet suggesting a review, and a letter actually calling for one. Could Pai have been faster with Trump? Sure, however his defense of the First Amendment should be noted and praised.
One thing which is interesting about the Sinclair review request is why it was done. Cantwell, Sanders, Warren, etc. all asked for the review because they claim to be worried about the First Amendment, and journalistic integrity in general.
We are concerned that Sinclair is engaged in a systematic news distortion operation that seeks to undermine freedom of the press and the robust localism and diversity of viewpoint that is the foundation of our national broadcasting laws.
Because of the new facts that have come to light with regard to Sinclair’s misconduct and abuse of the public trust pertaining to its existing broadcast licenses, we believe it is appropriate to pause the pending Sinclair-Tribune merger review and reopen the agency record on the transaction so that the FCC can receive another full round of robust public comments.
We are concerned that if the Sinclair-Tribune merger continues without a thorough review of these new facts, Sinclair’s practices of news distortion will proliferate to even more local stations, which Americans rely upon every day for fair and impartial news.
The outrage over Sinclair having its stations run a quasi-PSA regarding “the sharing of biased and false news” is a little over the top. A lot of it in hinged on the fact Sinclair is trying to buy Tribune Media, giving it a national outlet to put superkick parties on WGN America. Critics are worried the purchase will allow Sinclair to put even more of its “we’re concerned about fake news” PSAs on the air, while also getting footholds in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York. One thing Reason’s Matt Welch pointed out is it’s not the first time local TV stations have run rip and read scripts linking to a 2013 clip from Conan O’Brien’s TBS show. Welch goes a step further to reveal the idea Sinclair will suddenly be on in every home across the country is a little overstated.
According to Pew Research, only 9 percent of Americans view television without aid of cable, satellite, or internet connection. When we talk about Sinclair’s market share and potential “monopoly” status, we’re talking about that 9 percent—and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently blocks single companies from owning 50 percent of even that narrow slice, though it sometimes issues waivers based on a complicated and evolving formula. So as measured by the way human beings actually consume audiovisuals, Sinclair has a fraction of the market. Even as measured by the way just 1 out of every 11 people watch TV, the company in practice has an average market share in the “low” 20s, according to Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley in an earnings call last November.
So is Uncle Grandpa really trapped in a world with no choices? Well, as mentioned above, only 9 percent of adults consume TV through an antenna (as of last August). Only 11 percent do not go online. Only 15 percent do not access news on mobile devices. And just 23 percent do not get at least some news on social media. That leaves the maximum share of Americans living in comparative information deserts (which will nonetheless be likely to have at least some print media and radio, at minimum) at 9 percent, likely smaller. Are these all old coots barking at the TV?
Many of them, sure. One third of senior citizens do not use the Internet. The olds also like to watch more TV news—82 percent, compared to 23 percent of adults under 30. But here’s a crazy stat: More people aged 65 or over have a cable or satellite subscription (84 percent) by far than any other age cohort; and only 7 percent use an antenna. And even within that remaining 7 percent slice, let’s not forget that Sinclair is generally prohibited from owning two of the top four stations in a given market—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox all reach 97 percent of the country. If Uncle Grandpa is watching only his Sinclair local, or maybe Sinclair + Fox News, that’s his choice in a competitive media market.
If Sanders, Warren, Cantwell, etc. were actually worried about protecting the First Amendment, they’d ask for the FCC to be done away with and the government get out of the notion of regulating media, Internet, etc. The funny thing is Sinclair is getting, whether justly or not, raked over the coals for that supercut of anchors talking about “fake news” is similar to the frustrations aired by Trump over the “failing New York Times” or his quibbles about Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post. It’s authoritarians complaining about news outlets they don’t like, or ones which have a tighter relationship with certain politicians or parties.
A reminder for everyone involved: the press has always been biased, it always will be biased, and trying to use the heavy head of government to regulate it is about as freedom-loving as passing laws which put publishers in prison for writing things critical of the government (we tried that before and it oh so well). Pai made the right call by saying, “No,” to a review of Sinclair. Just like he made the right call by saying, “No,” to Trump’s comment about NBC. One doesn’t need to like the “news” put out by outlets to appreciate the First Amendment. It’s someone everyone needs to remember.