Doing a Number on Diversity

In this exclusive commentary, Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) weighs in on another big FCC vote Dec. 14--launching the review of the 39% national broadcast audience reach cap.
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This holiday season, the Federal Communications Commission has made it clear they have massive broadcast conglomerates like Sinclair Broadcasting on their “nice” list while an independent and local media will only be receiving coal. At Thursday’s public FCC meeting, this coal comes in the form of a proposal passed right under our noses -- in the thick of net neutrality talks -- that will set us on the path to blowing the cap off the laws that keep a single voice from controlling our nation’s airwaves.

Currently, the national media ownership cap is set at 39% of television households in the U.S. This means a single broadcast group cannot own stations that reach more than 39% of households. This rule prevents a single company, with a single agenda, from controlling everyone’s local news. Other countries that don’t have rules like this – like the former USSR – sometimes end up forcing their citizens to only get their information from one source. Sometimes it’s one corporation, and sometimes it’s the government, but whether it’s private or public, 100 percent is 100 percent. The FCC is proposing blowing the cap off the rule that ensures there is more than one source of information.

The FCC will set up a nominal process of public comments as is required, but given the speed at which the FCC has moved in the past 11 months, it’s obvious that the public comments are not going to change the chairman’s mind. This step would open the floodgates for a single corporation to control local media in all communities across America. Massive broadcast conglomerates like Sinclair Broadcasting would be allowed to force local news anchors to read national, one-size-fits-all news stories to a majority of American families. Additionally, this would decimate the diverse voices that we have today. They will be pushed or bought out of existence.

It's simple - the 39 percent national cap was set by Congress. The FCC is charged with enforcing laws, including the national cap, passed by Congress. The FCC does not have the authority to modify the cap. So why would it even begin to take steps to raise the national broadcast media ownership cap if they do not have the authority to do so? And why are we seeing this from an agency whose purported core mission is to ensure that broadcasters using our public airwaves adhere to principals of localism, diversity, and competition? Chairman Ajit Pai appears to be unwilling to work within the law.

Over the past few months, the FCC has been systematically attacking Americans’ ability to rely on unbiased local news. Just last month, the FCC voted to water down the rule keeping a single company from owning two of the top four stations in a city and voted to approve a new broadcast standard developed by Sinclair. Raising the national broadcast media ownership cap is a gift to Sinclair at the expense of the American people; though it is, undoubtedly, first on Sinclair’s Christmas wish list.

It’s pretty clear that Sinclair is relying on the FCC to make the changes they need in order to grow and skirt today’s law. Did Sinclair receive assurances from Chairman Pai that they wouldn’t have to worry about the 39 percent cap?

Earlier this year, I, along with nearly 50 other Members of Congress, wrote to Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO Christopher Ripley raising key questions related to how this proposed merger would affect local stations and local news staff. While the FCC continues to remove obstacles for Sinclair and pave the way for this merger, my colleagues and I are still waiting for the answers to those questions.

The American people deserve better than mega-mergers that will result in fewer local, diverse and independent media choices. The FCC should stop giving Sinclair gift after gift, neatly packaged with unprecedented shadiness and tied with a bow, or else it might as well just let Sinclair Santa run the meetings. Chairman Pai should give Sinclair’s wishes the serious scrutiny they deserve, so the FCC can get back to working for the American people.

Congressman Tony Cárdenas represents California’s 29th Congressional district. He serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. 

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