On Nov.16, the Federal Communications Commission, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, decided to make it easier for large corporations to limit and control news and information, in a 3-to-2 vote. As dissenting FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote: “Instead of engaging in thoughtful reform — which we should do — this agency sets its most basic values on fire. They are gone. As a result of this decision, wherever you live, the FCC is giving the green light for a single company to own the newspaper and multiple television and radio stations in your community.”
In a subsequent editorial, The Kansas City Star’s editorial board aided and abetted the arson described by Rosenworcel.
The FCC was created by the Communications Act of 1934 to regulate communication by wire or radio in the public interest, since updated to cover television, satellite and cable. The Star editorial even quoted former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps as saying the Nov. 16 vote was an “odious decision, which runs flagrantly afoul of the public interest.”
The creators of the FCC could not have been more clear about that interest. Following an example from Copps, I searched the text of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended by the Telecom Act of 1996. There I found 93 appearances of the two-word phrase, “public interest.”
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Pai calls this decision “modernization,” and The Star supported him in his tortured use of language, suggesting that concern for the public interest may have been valid in the 1980s or ‘90s, but would now be old-fashioned because we have hundreds of cable TV channels and people have “hundreds of thousands of information options on their phones and tablets.”
The editorial said that with video streaming, “anyone with a camera and a computer will be able to provide local news that can compete with the other stations in this market.” Of all people, members of the editorial board should appreciate that meaningful journalism requires significant resources, not just “anyone with a computer and a camera.”
How many of those “hundreds of thousands of information options” actually involve journalism, and how many just link to or copy real journalism done elsewhere — much of it still produced by the beleaguered newspaper industry? Facebook and Google, for example, besides invading our privacy, direct us to other sites and sell us to advertisers, sucking up dollars that used to support newspaper journalism, but they don’t do much journalism themselves.
Furthermore, The Star failed to mention that Pai has already announced his intention to do away with net neutrality, trading it in for net oligarchy. The same billionaire interests that can now limit and control information in major newspapers and radio and television stations will soon also limit and control information on tablets and phones, making sites they don’t like slower and more expensive, while facilitating access to information that suits their own private interests.
As for hundreds of television channels, how many are actually committing acts of journalism, and how many are just giving air time to talking heads spouting opinions?
Pai, formerly a Verizon corporate lawyer and an aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions, has a bit of a track record as an FCC Commissioner since 2012, and as President Donald Trump’s pick to be chairman last January. And it is not surprising that he serves the interests of Verizon, Sinclair and the Koch brothers rather than the public interest. The Star’s apparent desire to hurt its own prospects is more puzzling.
With the collapse of advertiser support for newspaper journalism, we desperately need to find a workable modern alternative for supporting public interest journalism. We do not need a regulatory environment built to feed the short-term cravings of billionaires and their media empires.
Tom Klammer is a media reform activist. He was host and producer of “Tell Somebody,” a public affairs program on KKFI community radio from 2005 to 2016.