Sometimes lawmakers write legislation that would do the opposite of its stated goal.
Nowhere is this more evident than in two recent bills — one introduced at the state level and another in the U.S. Congress — that are supposedly designed to “save local news.”
Both the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA) and the federal Journalism Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA) would allow news publishers — including broadcast companies — to extract payments from large social-media enterprises like Alphabet and Meta in exchange for linking to their content. This would apply to any content regardless of its accuracy or news value.
One of the bigger beneficiaries of California’s CJPA and the U.S. Senate’s JCPA is a conglomerate that seems determined to get rid of local news and replace it with right-wing spin produced at a “National Desk” far removed from the communities this broadcast company is legally obligated to serve.
That conglomerate, Sinclair Broadcast Group, recently announced plans to eliminate entire local newsrooms at local-television stations in five broadcast areas. Sinclair is also drastically cutting newsroom staff at an additional five local stations, pushing all of these stations to fill the resulting news hole with National Desk boilerplate. That means zero local coverage — and lots of the sort of cookie-cutter conservatism that Sinclair has pumped out via the public airwaves for decades.
Saving local news by throttling it
Sinclair doesn’t care about the benefits that local-news coverage brings to communities. The company owns and operates several stations that broadcast to regions of California, including KAEF in Eureka, KBAK in Bakersfield, KMPH in Fresno, KRCR in Redding and KRXI around Lake Tahoe. Any of these newsrooms could be next on its chopping block. But lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington are ignoring Sinclair’s dismal track record and moving forward with legislation that would reward Sinclair as it undermines local news.
On Tuesday, the CJPA passed through California Assembly’s Judiciary Committee just a few days after the Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection advanced it. And in Washington, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has reintroduced the JCPA, which failed to pass in the previous Congress after facing headwinds from a coalition of local-news advocates and media-democracy groups.
Both bills would create a convoluted mechanism for corporate handouts to highly profitable and consolidated media outlets — and both bills would allow these chains to continue to neglect the information needs of the communities they’re supposed to serve.
That these bills have any momentum is largely due to the powerful Big Media lobby pushing them. This includes lobbyists working on behalf of Sinclair as well as Gannett Co. and predatory hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which have also cut local newsrooms to the bone even as they’ve continued to buy back stocks, go deeper into debt to acquire more local outlets, and use other financial gimmicks to enrich their owners, executives and shareholders.
These companies aren’t journalism’s saviors. In many places they’ve created news deserts after shuttering local operations. Lawmakers shouldn’t reward them for such slash-and-burn tactics. Instead, policymakers should pass bills that support local-accountability journalism by putting reporters back on local beats and expanding coverage in communities that companies like Sinclair have neglected.
The FCC must step up, too
The Federal Communications Commission has done next to nothing to discipline these companies for their constant misuse of the public airwaves.
An FCC mandate is to “protect and advance diversity, competition and localism in the media marketplace.” The agency has instead allowed Sinclair to consolidate control over nearly 200 local stations. And in 2018, the conglomerate misled the FCC about the nature of its control over the many stations it already owned in a failed attempt to gobble up even more.
In exchange for exclusive access to so much of our public airwaves, Sinclair thumbs its nose at public-interest obligations, delivering the bare minimum required by the FCC. It created sham businesses and shell companies to evade FCC station-ownership limits. It forces these local-TV stations to air “must-run segments” filled with propaganda seemingly pulled straight from a MAGA rally. And it routinely cuts back on local-news staffing while its top executives get rich off the bumper crop of political campaign ads that come around every two years.
Whether it’s via state or federal legislation, or a federal agency that has too often bucked its obligation to serve the public interest, regulators seem intent on saving local news by ignoring — or even perpetuating — the problems that led to its collapse in the first place.
Once we recognize the miscues and market failures driving the journalism crisis, it becomes hard to justify simply handing money over to these same incumbents. This recognition requires we shift our focus away from bills like the CJPA and JCPA toward public policy that creates funding for local-accountability journalism, including noncommercial initiatives.
The FCC needs to take a long-overdue look at its legacy of failure. Promoting competition, localism and diversity means giving more locally owned outlets access to the public airwaves — outlets that will serve their communities in ways Sinclair has not.
In a strategic sleight of hand, the large news-media companies want us to conflate the public importance of local journalism with their own bottom lines.
When companies like Sinclair lobby for these bad bills, they want us to forget their actual record of mistreating their own reporters. They want to pretend they’re not getting rich by maintaining this broken system that’s misusing our airwaves and poisoning our democracy.
The problem is that too many of our elected representatives and appointed media regulators are all too willing to give Sinclair a pass, and have opted to “save local news” by becoming accessories to its demise.