As the nation grapples with the violent insurrection fueled by President Trump’s lies and divisive rhetoric, as well as a surging pandemic and economic upheaval, the local broadcast media’s job of providing communities with reliable news and information has never been more important. Communities deserve a diverse array of voices and perspectives in the media on critical issues such as economic and racial justice and investigative reporting that holds power accountable.
Who owns and presents the media matters. It makes a world of difference when it comes to who appears on local television and who does not, what news is covered, and what issues are presented for our civic dialogue. Ownership by women and people of color means that they can control the narratives of their own stories.
As former Commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission, we have seen firsthand how massive waves of media consolidation impact our democracy. Newsrooms are shuttered and thousands of journalists fired; investigative reporting is on life support; and with less locally-originated programming, the diverse needs and interests of our communities are not met.
The FCC has a public interest mandate to promote media diversity, including media ownership for women and people of color. It is against this backdrop that the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Federal Communications Commission v. Prometheus Radio Project on January 19th.
From one vantage point, this case is a simple question of whether the FCC did its job, followed its mandates, and provided a rational explanation following the procedures that apply to all agency decision-making. In this case, the Trump FCC found, paradoxically, that allowing further consolidation would not harm ownership opportunities for women and people of color.
The FCC’s own recent data highlight that people of color now own about 6 percent of television stations while women own roughly 5 percent. Breaking the numbers down even deeper reveals that Hispanic Americans own just 4 percent of television stations while African Americans own less than 1 percent. These numbers are nothing short of abysmal in a country that is fifty percent women and where people of color will comprise a majority of the population by 2045. The FCC has been relying on flawed data for years, failing to obtain a complete dataset on what broadcast stations are owned by women and people of color, so those dismal numbers may not tell the full story. Accurate data is what the appellate court has been requesting from the FCC for nearly 10 years.
In addition to relying on flawed data to conclude that consolidation would not impact ownership diversity, the FCC used woefully inadequate analysis that in the words of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit was, “so insubstantial that it would receive a failing grade in any introductory statistics class.” But rather than fixing its analysis, the FCC is seeking a bailout from the Supreme Court to greenlight more media consolidation.
While the question before the Court is relatively simple, the implications of the decision are not. Democracy, accountability, civic discourse, emergency access to information, community needs — all are dependent upon journalists and the media outlets they work for.
We have just witnessed what can happen — a violent mob storming our nation’s Capitol — when lies and conspiracy theories that are neither vetted nor widely countered plague our information ecosystem. Just as important is receiving reliable information on local issues — whether the water is safe to drink, whether the traffic is clear, whether the school board is operating in our children’s best interests and whether the police are being held to the highest standards of professionalism and service.
Even in the digital age, broadcast media continue to remain a critical source of news and information for a significant percentage of Americans. This is particularly true for people of color, low-income people, and other marginalized communities who rely more on local broadcast stations for their news due in part to their disproportionately lower access to broadband. A recent study found that, in medium size markets, online-only outlets accounted for only 10 percent of local news stories.
Industry advocates will tell you they must consolidate in order to provide the news and information that we all need. But consolidation has never increased the number of journalists on the street. On the contrary, consolidation is extinguishing the kind of journalism this nation needs in order to sustain our democracy.
As Commissioners, we both fought long and hard to ensure our nation’s media served our nation’s highest values: democracy, equity, fairness, diversity, robust debate, and reliable journalism. The FCC cannot ignore the rule of law and its own legislated mandate just to please special interests pushing for more media consolidation at the expense of ownership diversity.
Our democracy will certainly continue to languish without a media landscape that fosters a diversity in the voices and perspectives that can only come from more diverse media ownership. These voices are essential to a flourishing self-government and achieving a media ecosystem that serves us all.