Commentary: The FCC vote that could put local news at risk
The Federal Communications Commission will vote this week on whether to eliminate a variety of limitations on media ownership. Some of these rollbacks are overdue. But others are overdone -- and threaten to diminish the variety of news and views broadcast on local television.
The key to telling the difference is to keep in mind the FCC's main purpose with this kind of regulation: to promote competition and a diversity of views in local markets. Before purging its antiquated rulebook, the commission should develop a new framework for advancing these broader goals.
An example of an outdated regulation is the one prohibiting companies from owning both a television station and a newspaper or radio station in the same market. The rule may have made sense in the 1970s, when the dominant forces in local media markets were print and radio. But both media have faded in influence as informed citizens increasingly turn to cable TV and the internet for a range of news and opinion that was unimaginable four decades ago.
What's more, it now makes little sense to distinguish between a physical newspaper and a digital one. If television stations can own the latter, they should be permitted to own the former -- and vice versa.
Repealing this rule could help save some newspapers and radio stations that are struggling financially, though it could also lead to further consolidation of both industries -- a trend that is likely to continue no matter what the FCC does.
None of this is to say that FCC should simply give up on the goal of fostering competition -- economic and otherwise. This is especially true in regulating the airwaves, which are a public resource. Yet the FCC wants to jettison rules that prohibit companies from owning two or more television stations in markets where there aren't at least eight independent stations, and it wants to weaken rules that prohibit one company from owning two or more of the top-rated stations.
Chairman Ajit Pai argues that these limitations no longer serve the public interest, given the proliferation of news sources on the internet and cable television. But not all Americans can afford, or have access to, the internet and cable -- and there is little local news on cable channels.
Moreover, under the law, a broadcast license comes with responsibilities to serve the needs and interests of local communities. If one company can own multiple stations in a market, the diversity of local perspectives and programming could be diminished.
In cable news, channels that tilt coverage in one direction are offset by those that tilt the opposite way. Media companies have long engaged in this type of activity, to one extent or another. The best way to counter it, both locally and nationally, is to ensure a diversity of voices. Rolling back ownership rules of the public airwaves will make that more difficult.
The media landscape has shifted dramatically since the 1970s, and the FCC's rules have not kept pace. By all means, update them for the new century. But just dumping the old rules will not protect the kind of robust and diverse media industry that democracy requires.
*This is an editorial that appears on the Bloomberg View*