Barbara Howard: The Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, has voted to lift a more than 40-year-old ban on cross-ownership in media markets. It's also loosened restrictions on owning multiple television stations in a single market. The FCC commissioners voted along party lines: three Republicans prevailing over two Democrats. In the studio to talk about all of this is Northeastern University journalism professor and WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy. Thanks for coming in, Dan.
Dan Kennedy: Thanks for having me.
Howard: What was the original ban on cross-ownership designed to do?
Kennedy: Well, it was designed to encourage a diversity of voices in a local news market. So naturally, there would be a business incentive for TV stations to buy newspapers and they would combine their newsrooms and it might mean more profits for the owners of those properties, but it would mean less choice in news and coverage of the community.
Howard: Narrower views, it sounds like.
Howard: Does this decision from the FCC mean that we're going to see, like, the Boston Globe or the Boston Herald, what have you, moving into television and radio?
Kennedy: Well there's a possibility of that. You know, one argument that the FCC makes is that the newspaper business, in particular, is in bad shape and the local TV news business is not in as good a shape as it used to be, and so therefore, why not combine them and let them save on costs and perhaps do better journalism. But it's unlikely that it's going to work out that way. Boston Globe owner John Henry has expressed interest in television for a long time. This opens up some more possibilities. Pat Purcell, the owner of the Boston Herald, has long been interested in radio. They have a pretty robust internet radio operation already, so he may want to add a broadcast radio station to that.
Howard: Well let's look at the loosening of restrictions on owning multiple television stations. Is this in any way going to be helping Sinclair Broadcasting as it tries to buy Tribune Media? Tribune, of course, being another big media outlet — and there's a merger pending there.
Kennedy: It certainly will. If the merger had been approved but the old rule had stayed in effect, the new super Sinclair would have had to divest itself of a number of TV stations in order to stay under the cap in these individual markets. As it stands, as I understand it, they would have to divest themselves of many fewer stations and they would end up owning more stations than they would otherwise.
Howard: Well now that they're not going to be burdened by that, and if they are, in fact, allowed to have this merger go through, it would create the country's largest television group — access to nearly three quarters of U.S. households — 72 percent to be exact. In fact, one of their current stations is WJAR in Providence. Now some of the local stations that Sinclair has bought up have bristled at being required to carry content produced by the owners, which has a definite right-leaning bent, including carrying — nine times a week — commentary by a former Trump official, Boris Epshteyn.
Now here's a clip where Epshteyn goes after the media:
(SOUND FROM THE CLIP)
"From the very start of the Trump presidency the press briefings have veered way off course. They've become much more theater than information gathering; theater in which, frankly, the press has often played the leading role."
Howard: Does it matter to you whether these commentaries are conservative or liberal? What do you make of it?
Kennedy: I don't care whether the commentary is right, left or center. I think that what's an issue here is that you have the big national chain forcing all of its local stations to carry exactly the same content on their local newscasts. This is not something that we've seen before in local television. They're pretty much free to do their own coverage of their own communities. And unfortunately, localism used to be the watchword of the FCC, and it doesn't seem that they really care about that anymore.
Howard: OK, thanks for joining us.
Kennedy: Thank you.
Howard: That's Northeastern University journalism professor and WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy.