By Dana Floberg, Free Press
This week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai continued to shower broadcast-media conglomerates like Sinclair with deregulatory gifts — while stiffing the public.
Pai led a party-line vote at the FCC to destroy a requirement known as the “main studio rule,” which required local broadcast stations to maintain physical studios in or near the communities they’re licensed to serve.
The nearly 80-year-old rule was designed to ensure stations would be accessible to local community members trying to engage and tell their own stories — and to make residents accessible to journalists reporting on local news.
This wasn’t an example of the “burdensome regulation” you’ve heard so much about. Main studios could be within 25 miles of the communities they serve and still comply with the rule. Stations could also obtain an exemption if they proved that it was in the public interest for the main studio to be even farther away.
But even that basic level of protection was too much for Pai and the massive broadcast conglomerates he’s so eager to serve.
Slashing the main studio rule will have serious consequences for communities across the nation. Wave after wave of consolidation has reduced the broadcast industry to a game of media goliaths jockeying to slash costs, swallow up more stations and hollow out their commitments to local communities.
Sinclair is a perfect case study of how rampant broadcast consolidation can harm communities. For years, Sinclair has leveraged its enormous size to shutter newsrooms, pioneer shady sharing-agreements that allow the company to evade ownership limits, and force local stations to air propaganda-style “must-run” right-wing commentaries.
Eliminating the main studio rule will make all of that worse. Already, we know traditional and new media outlets alike are failing to adequately invest in marginalized communities, especially communities of color, low-income communities and rural areas.
Without the main studio rule, broadcasters like Sinclair don’t even have to pretend to care about these communities — they can move all broadcast production to wealthy, White metropolitan areas and leave everyone else stranded with duplicative, cookie-cutter, faux-local news coverage that fails to respond to the needs of individual communities.
Even in the digital age, most people still rely heavily on broadcast stations for local news, as well as critical emergency coverage. They can’t afford to be abandoned in the post-main studio shuffle. Broadcasters trumpet their localism commitments whenever they want something from Congress or the FCC, but as Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has noted, they’re working very hard to “absolve themselves from maintaining local roots.”
The main studio rule isn’t the only important local broadcasting protection to fall under Chairman Pai’s axe. Earlier this year Pai reinstated an antiquated loophole to allow Sinclair and other broadcasters to claim to be smaller than they really are, and thus avoid regulatory scrutiny. And today Pai proposed even more aggressive changes to media-ownership rules in a transparent attempt to ram the colossal Sinclair-Tribune merger proposal through.
These actions represent a disturbing trend — and a slap in the face to local communities.