Media + Internet = Voting, and Trump’s Communications Regulator Knows It
This week, we’re hearing reports that Russian social media accounts helped foster the dramatic secession vote in Spain this fall, as we witness Catalonian officials on the run, facing criminal charges of rebellion. Headline-grabbing election results influenced by questionable sources seem to be de rigueur these days, paralleling attempts by Russian accounts to roil the U.S. presidential election last year.
Using the media to influence an election is hardly a surprise. Every politician who has ever bought a political ad, or staged a press event in order to get news coverage, understands that media and elections are closely intertwined.
Here in the U.S., as the civil rights community delights in the amazing string of victories in Virginia and around the country last week, I worry that changes made this week by Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission will make it less likely that next year’s mid-term elections will look as good. Trump’s Chairman, Ajit Pai, is narrowing media and news choices for everyone, and the hardest hit will be low-income and historically marginalized communities.
Let’s start with the sweeping media diversity rollback coming on Thursday. The FCC will remove a number of protections that are designed to promote economic competition as well as competition in the marketplace of ideas — the more owners we have, the more different ideas and viewpoints, the more debate, the better for everyone. Each of these rules limits how many broadcast outlets — a TV or radio station — a single owner can have in a particular local market. They also limit ownership of multiple kinds of media — so the newspaper broadcast rule prohibits one company from monopolizing all the news media in a single city, for example. This serves to increase competitive journalism. In most cases, only local newscasts and newspapers employ journalists, so when a TV station and a newspaper are owned by the same company, one publisher or owner decides which stories are covered and which communities go by the wayside.
TV ownership diversity in the US is horribly low — right now while people of color comprise almost 40 percent of the population, only 7 percent of TV stations are owned by a person of color.
Studies show that media outlets catering to a particular viewpoint can make a big difference in who participates in elections. It makes sense. For most people, the question with most news — particularly political news — is “how will this affect me?”
Receiving news in your native language, or geared toward your cultural and regional interests, increases the likelihood that you understand how a particular election will impact you and thus are more motivated to vote.
This is important for the civil rights community — but it is also important for the folks who support Donald Trump. If a Mandarin-language television news program might encourage Chinese-Americans to participate in elections, an ultra-conservative reactionary television station is also likely encourage ultra-conservatives to engage and to vote.
This is where the FCC plans become even more frightening — this media diversity rollback is not just about empowering corporate media. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out, it’s about favoring a particular corporation — Sinclair Broadcasting. Sinclair is well known for its ultra conservative news coverage, softball questions for the Trump administration, requiring all of its local affiliates to run opinion pieces from former Trump White House official Boris Epshteyn, and racist assumptions about American Muslims and terrorism (highlighted by HBO’s John Oliver). Earlier this year, the Trump FCC reinstated a technologically obsolete rule to assist Sinclair. And FCC Chairman Pai has promised to modify the last rule standing between Sinclair’s record-breaking takeover of Tribune Media — notwithstanding that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to do it (more on this administrative power grab below).
As with any debate about broadcast or print media, pretty soon, someone will ask, “but what about the Internet? Does it really matter who is on broadcast TV and radio with the huge variety of material available on the Internet?” Trump’s FCC chair has his eyes on the Internet too. This week, in addition to dialing down the number of TV and radio station owners in local markets, the Trump FCC is gutting a program that helps low-income people gain access to broadband Internet. If you’re poor — in rural or urban America — Team Trump is making it harder for you to see anything online by attacking the Lifeline program.
And for those of us lucky enough to be able to afford an Internet subscription? Next month, the FCC is widely expected to take a major step toward eliminating the net neutrality rules. If you’re fortunate enough to have an independent locally oriented news web site covering issues in your hometown, the rollback of net neutrality means smaller content providers will be stuck in the slow lane, while highly commercial interests with deep pockets will get all the Internet speed they need. Everything from your pastor’s weekly sermon to the local government’s live stream will be in the same, slow-moving boat with local news content. The news and entertainment sources controlled by the most powerful in society will get an even bigger leg up.
Just when it seems all is at its darkest, there is still a chance that many of these things can be stopped. Congress can hold tight and refuse to negotiate away the strong net neutrality rules when the current majority has demonstrated its disrespect for civil rights. Congress can insist the FCC follows its own rules and adopt technologically neutral rules for the low-income broadband program. And Congress can also stop the FCC from a complete rollback on media diversity and competition because Congress sets the national TV ownership limits, not the FCC. Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly made clear last year that Congress set the national TV ownership limit in 2004 and retains the sole power to increase it.
This Congressional mobilization is not a single-party issue. While I’m a progressive worried about media outlets that will shift voters away from electing women, LGBTQ, and candidates of color, anyone who cares about democracy or a diversity of opinion should care about all these rules. Historically, both Democrats and Republicans have supported ownership diversity — what politician wants his political foil to own all the TV stations and newspapers in his district’s biggest media market? Ask Trent Lott, Parents Television Council and the National Rifle Association if they want the liberal Hollywood elites to control our country’s narrative. Once Sinclair’s merger goes through, every other TV owner in the country will want to grow to compete. TV mergers lead not only to fewer viewpoints and fewer journalists, they also lead to higher prices as cable companies lose their leverage to negotiate for carrying network signals. Republicans and Democrats agree that higher cable television prices don’t win votes.
Direct voter suppression is damaging our elections. The assault on media diversity and Internet freedom is even more sinister — cutting off the news and information that everyone needs in order to participate.
Cheryl A. Leanza runs her own media and technology consulting firm, A Learned Hand, and is the policy advisor for the United Church of Christ’s media justice ministry, OC Inc.