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Democracy Needs Diverse Local Media

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Diversity, competition and localism are the necessary conditions for media to serve democracy — so they are protected under U.S. communications law. But where there is a profit to be made or special interest power to consolidate, these basic conditions are at risk. People must be diligent to ensure liberty and justice for all.

Consolidated absentee ownership reduces competition, threatens media localism and harms information diversity. So the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has historically reviewed and placed limits on consolidation of media ownership and control — including a national audience cap (39 percent) and limits on joint operating agreements and cross-ownership of news outlets in Designated Market Areas (DMAs), an industry term for regions where the population receives the same television offerings.

Transfers of broadcast license ownership and operating control that enrich private owners are reviewed to ensure that the proposed change is also in the public interest. If the deal is not in the public interest, the FCC can deny the application or place conditions on the license. That is how it is supposed to work. Sadly, FCC efforts to prevent media consolidation have struggled and failed to meet the goal, with fewer and larger corporations controlling more and more media.

"Preventing monopolies in local media and turning back the tide of corporate consolidation has never been more vital than it is today," declared North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman upon introduction of the Local and Independent Television Protection Act (HR 3478). The proposed legislation would require the FCC to remove an obsolete loophole and prevent any one owner from gaining monopolistic control over a local TV market. He introduced the legislation in response to a move by the commission this year to unleash consolidation of control in the broadcast TV marketplace nationwide.

The local DMA for Eureka was among the first to experience the tectonic shift toward consolidation earlier this year when the largest TV broadcast operator in the nation, Sinclair Broadcasting Group, moved to acquire Bonten Media, the entity controlling four TV stations in the Eureka DMA. The FCC had just (within 24 hours!) reopened an obsolete loophole called the "UHF discount rule" to make this possible.

Some folks might say the fact that one absentee owner controlled four TV stations on the North Coast was already wrong. Some folks might say that Bonten actually made investments in the market when they acquired the stations — improving service in the DMA. And some folks will point out that Sinclair is under a cloud of controversy for political shenanigans, forcing stations to air hard right messages and "terror alert" programs that foment fear and loathing to serve a partisan agenda. The Sinclair juggernaut continues expanding, its efforts to acquire Tribune an ongoing national story.

Access Humboldt and the League of Women Voters of Humboldt County (LWVHC) opposed Sinclair Broadcast Group's acquisition of Bonten Media Group because the transaction failed to meet the public interest standard, noting that the deal includes the only local Spanish language TV outlet in our region. An open letter was offered inviting Sinclair to ensure localism with meaningful investments in local news and information, promote universal access with investments in new infrastructure and provide transparency and accountability to local jurisdictions through community-based participation in local programming. (See the letter at www.accesshumboldt.net/site/open-letter-sinclair-broadcasting.)

The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan political organization, encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. The league has long worked for citizens' right to know and for broad public participation in government. Thoughtful, unbiased news coverage from our local television stations is essential to this goal, especially that of local public affairs.

Together, we support Huffman's proposed legislation (HR 3478) to address the negative impacts of consolidated absentee ownership in our local media. Resilient communities require meaningful choice in their information ecosystem, including local and independent television.

Rollin Richmond is the president of the local League of Women Voters and spent 12 years helping lead Humboldt State University before retiring in 2014.

Sean Taketa McLaughlin is executive director for Access Humboldt, which supports broadband media access, including a Community Media Center at Eureka High School, five cable TV channels, a Community Media Archive collection and KZZH FM 96.7 in Eureka.

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