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All the News That Fits in a Day

Tonight is opening night for our annual amateur theatrical turn in the Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch revue that the local media types put on to raise money for the lost cause of journalism scholarships. That means last night was an exhausting dress rehearsal, followed by a cast gathering at Harry’s Uptown Bar & Grill, so it’s been hard to keep our usual keen eye on the news.
While working with our news-mongering friends, though, it’s been hard not to notice some worrisome stories about the news business. Foremost at the moment is the Sinclair Broadcasting Company’s attempt to add another 42 local television broadcasters to the 189 it already owns in 89 markets by taking over the Tribune Company’s television markets, which would give Sinclair access to 72 percent of the nation’s households and make it the largest local television operator in the country.
We’re usually not inclined to worry much about media monopolization, as the internet and the proliferation of cable channels and other market innovations a offer wider and more diverse range sources of news than ever, but this is troubling. Sinclair recently made news by forcing all of its news anchors to read from the same script criticizing other media for their biased “fake news,” a criticism frequently made by President Donald Trump, its outlets have a well-earned reputation for bias toward Trump, and there’s worry that it might be meant to curry favor with the Trump appointees on the Federal Communications Commission that has to give approval to Sinclair’s buy-out of Tribune’s local TV holdings.
Sinclair is certainly entitled to its pro-Trump point of view, and there are historically valid reasons why the federal government has the power to regulate over-the-public-airwaves broadcasts, but there’s something smelly about this.
The FCC gets to regulate the rather narrow range of over-the-public-airwaves radio and television broadcast frequencies because the radio stations used to amp up their broadcasts to the point they overwhelmed their competitors, and in the early days of television there were only four players, but even then there was a First Amendment and a broadly recognized understanding that the federal government did not have the right to regulate the content of whatever news any old news disseminator might disseminate. Networks rose and fell, newspapers rose and fell and merged, new news media emerged through some market innovation or another, but somehow the First Amendment always survived.
This time around, though, despite our preoccupations, we can’t help noticing Trump’s thumb on the scale. The president has lately “tweeted” Sinclair is far better than the “fake news” Cable News Network or the even more “fake news” National Broadcasting Corporation, along with his ongoing criticism of any print or radio or televised or internet critics as “fake news.”
At the same time, he’s been especially harsh in his criticisms of the Cable News Network, and “tweeted” misspelled insults against its chief executive officer, who used to head the news department at NBC, where Trump had once had a hit reality show and there expected better coverage. The gigantic media conglomerate that owns CNN is in the process of being sold to an even more gigantic entertainment-and-news media conglomerate, that also requires the approval of several federal regulatory agencies, including the Trump appointees, and that seems to be dragging out more than usual.
The big-media conglomerate that owns CNN is just as constitutionally entitled to it’s to anti-Trump views, as far as we’re concerned, and we don’t see any reason the government should be any more averse to its acquisition by by an even bigger media conglomerate than it should about Sinclair’s acquisition o the once-formidable Tribune company’s holdings. Let Sinclair buy up those local television stations, too, and in any case let the buyer beware.
In the long run we’ll let  the buyers beware, and after the past few weeks of rehearsal with our fellow local media types we’re heartened that they’ll also do their best.

— Bud Norman

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Our Neutral Position on “Net Neutrality”

As embarrassing as it is to admit, we have only the vaguest idea about how this newfangled “internet” thingamajig you’re reading us on actually works. Which makes it hard for us to make sense of the big “net neutrality” controversy of the day.
The fuss all started when President Donald Trump’s choice of chairman of the Federal Communications convinced the other Republicans on its board to repeal a regulation imposed by President Barack Obama’s choice of FCC chairman and the rest of the board’s Democrats, and for most Americans these days that’s all they need to know to choose sides. We have no affection for Obama or Trump, though, and were thus obliged to consider all the arguments on their merit.
So far as we can glean from all the shouting about it, the “net neutrality” regulation required internet service providers to allow their customers access to all sites that post on the internet and at the same download speeds. Our understanding is that internet service providers are those people you pay every month for your internet, and are the “ISP” that you’re supposed to type into those pesky “pop-up” boxes that pop up whenever your internet thingamajig goes off-kilter. There are only so many of these very profitable companies, so far as we can tell, and according to all our friends who live out in the Kansas boondocks they’re lucky if the current regulations compel any of them to offer their services in such unprofitable areas, so it’s hard even for such instinctively de-regulating Republicans such as our ourselves to take a rooting interest in them.
Any liberal Democrats who accordingly choose sides must acknowledge, though, that all the “content providers” who are opposed to the de-regulation include some very profitable business interests as well. “Content providers” are apparently all the people who post on the internet, even such sympathetic pajama-clad mom and pop operations such as ourselves, but they’re also that Netflix outfit that’s suddenly as big a player in Hollywood as any studio or network, those Google guys who have a picture of your house with the garbage can still on the curb and are threatening to start driving your car for you, along with such nefarious characters as Microsoft and all those quickly conglomerating media giants.
Liberals love to decry the corrupting influence of big business on American politics, but they never seem to understand that the various big businesses have very varying interests. Federal regulators have their own interests in resolving the conflicts, which mostly derive from the interests of the political parties that appointed them, and with no one to root for but the lowly consumer it’s best to resolve these matters on the merits of the arguments. In this case the liberal argument is that unrestrained service providers will have an economic incentive to steer their customers to their preferred content providers, which seems reasonable enough, but the conservative counter-argument is that if they did so in a free market their customers would go elsewhere, and even in such a limited marketplace as the IPS biz is these days that also seems reasonable enough.
The Republican rule that regulations have a constraining effect on economic activity is self-obvious and usually reliable, but even such conservative souls as ourselves have to admit it’s not infallible.
We once co-authored a history of a local country and western radio station, which was for a long while the best got-danged country and western radio station in the whole wild world, and in the course of our exhaustive research we learned how the FCC first came into being back during the impeccably pro-business and Republican but un-fondly remembered administration of President Herbert Hoover. Radio was the newfangled mass communications thingamajig of the time, with all the savvy business interests of the time eagerly buying in, but a free market free-for-all proved unprofitably chaotic.
Without any regulation the radio stations such as the one we wrote about had an economic incentive to ramp up their wattage to a point it drowned out their competitors, who then had an economic incentive to ramp up their wattage, and even such a ruthless businessman as Hoover realized the government had to assure each content provider enough space on the AM dial to provide the lowly consumer with choices. A profitable industry resulted, Americans were suddenly communicating with one another from coast-to-coast, a lot of great American music and comedy and drama were aired along with a lot of crackpot commentary from right-wing and left-wing kooks, and even liberals will admit it was one of Hoover’s good ideas.
Since then the FCC has had a more decidedly mixed record, with both liberals and conservatives objecting at any given time, depending on which party is in power, and by now we won’t offer any guess about “net neutrality.” We still haven’t figured out how our car’s radio actually works, much less this even more newfangled “internet” thingamajig, yet our bewilderment only bolsters our faith that in the long run it really doesn’t matter.
By now we’ve seen enough to know that lawsuits are already being filed, the opposing profitable business interests are already laying out big money for lobbying, political parties come in and out of power, and that these slow-moving dinosaurs are always a step or two behind the faster pace of technological evolution. Right now someone far smarter than ourselves, and even smarter than those big business interests and federal regulators, is coming up with some newfangled thing that causes an even bigger fuss.
In the meantime we won’t worry that any of the internet service providers will discriminate against our content, which is very wordy and video-free and causes little strain on the bandwidth, and is too little-read to cause much controversy, and so long as we can watch YouTube and Netflix at a reasonable speed we have no dog in this fight.

— Bud Norman

A Friendly Visit From the FCC

Those friendly folks at the Federal Communications Commission are planning a visit to your local newsroom, and it will be interesting to see what kind of reception they’ll receive. If they drop by here we’ll be tempted to greet them with a combination of the First and Second Amendments, but we worry they’ll be greeted cordially at the more respectable publications.
The visits are entirely voluntary and merely a matter of intellectual curiosity, we are assured, and intended only to gather helpful information about how the various media decide which stories to report. More specifically, they hope to find out about the “processes” radio and televisions stations use in making their editorial judgments and how often they provide the “critical information needs” of news consumers. It strikes us as chilling that the government now concerns itself with the thoughts underlying the perfectly legal and openly expressed opinions of the media, and has already reached its own conclusions about what information citizens critically need, and one wonders how “voluntary” an invitation can be when issued by the agency that grants a newsroom license to broadcast, but we are assured this is merely right-wing paranoia.
Such assurances would be more reassuring if the government hadn’t lately been using the Internal Revenue Service to harrass the administration’s political opponents, the Department of Justice hadn’t been treating reporters’ investigative journalism as a criminal conspiracy, the National Security Agency wasn’t snooping around Americans’ phone records, and the United States hadn’t recently dropped another 13 spots to 46th place on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom rankings. Our concerns do seem relegated to the conservative corners of the media, judging by the sources of the scant attention being paid to the FCC’s plans, but the quietude of the rest makes it all the more troubling.
The Fox New Network is on the story, possibly because they’re the ones whose reporters have treated as criminal co-conspirators and excluded from the White House news pool and routinely criticized by every level of the administration, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the radio talk shows have been paying some attention for obvious reasons of their own, but otherwise the story has gone largely unnoted. In our years of journalism we endured many a journalist’s self-righteous sermon about the obligation of the press to bravely resist any governmental interference, but that was mostly during Republican administrations, when nothing like the FCC’s current curiosity and the nation’s slide down the rankings of press freedom ever occurred, and at this moment of hope and change none of the over-the-air networks seem terribly concerned that their notions of the news consumers’ critical information needs will differ much from the government’s.
There’s little chance that the FCC will bother with such far-flung internet publications as this, but if they take a mind to we will save the taxpayers the cost of a visit. We select the stories we write about by a process of finding something that piques our interest or provides an opportunity for embittered satire, and we believe that Americans critically need to be informed that the government is getting too nosy and bossy, and that freedom of the press shall not be abridged.

— Bud Norman