Spin Cycle

Tom Wheeler was Chair of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017. In the wake of Sinclair Broadcasting’s application to acquire Tribune Media, he wrote a very troubling article for the Guardian. 

It is a major decision, since the resulting broadcast behemoth would hold as many as 233 local television stations reaching into more than 70 percent of American homes. Allegations about the Trump administration’s closeness to Sinclair – including Jared Kushner’s campaign deal with them – have been made. All I know is what I read, but the lead up to the actual decision has been significant and seems to presage approval.

Wheeler has previously warned that Trump’s FCC has been strategically knocking down all the regulatory barriers that have kept Sinclair Broadcasting from becoming a national Goliath.

First, the FCC changed the rules so that some stations are counted at only half their reach – using funny math to comply with Congress’ mandate that no single broadcaster should control access to more than 39 percent of American households. Then, the FCC proposed eliminating the requirement that each licensee maintain a local studio, doing away with the concept that broadcasters perform an important public service by delivering local news and information over the people’s airwaves. Finally, the commission eliminated the prohibition on a favorite trick of slick lawyers: that total management control and appropriation of profits of a television station doesn’t constitute effective ownership, and thus avoids Congress’ cap.

The rules that the current FCC Chair has changed or evaded were intended to protect a broadcasting marketplace of ideas–to prevent any one voice from effectively drowning out other voices, other perspectives, in a community.

Proponents of these sorts of rule changes and mega-mergers argue that the internet, social media and things like satellite radio provide adequate diversity of opinion. Perhaps, when those constantly morphing mediums have “settled in” and become routine touchstones in the cultural landscape (if that ever happens), that argument might carry some weight. At this point in our constantly-morphing media landscape, however, allowing Sinclair–or any one outlet–to dominate the airwaves would be like giving Fox or MSNBC control of all but a few cable news channels.

The current chair of the FCC has already signaled his agenda by trying to reverse the rules protecting Net Neutrality. 

This rule-changing at the FCC illustrates one of the most dangerous aspects of the Trump Administration. We all worry about having a mentally-ill President’s finger on the nuclear button, but very few of us know about–or pay attention to–obscure and technocratic rule changes, the sorts of sabotage that Scott Pruitt is engaging in at the EPA. While decent citizens react negatively to Trump’s embrace of the KKK, et al, most of us don’t even see what is happening in more boring regulatory precincts.

For that matter, most of us were unaware of Sinclair’s determinedly rightwing political agenda until John Oliver’s recent, scathing take-down.

As the French philosopher Jacques Ellul once warned,  the emergence of mass media made possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale. Monopolies in the markets for goods are bad enough; allowing any perspective to monopolize the marketplace of ideas is infinitely worse.


  1. The benefits and abuses of FCC rulings are widespread; regardless of who does or does not own or regulate the system. Privatizing the Internet (as Trump hopes to accomplish) is but one factor we as Americans need to fight against.

    Local news broadcasts have again become lax in providing FCC required closed captioning on weather reports and too often on traffic reports. These lapses, plus the deterioration in quality of all news broadcasts in general prevent hearing impaired and deaf from receiving local, national and international news as well as full reporting of severe weather bulletins and road closings. Approximately ten years ago, this issue was vastly improved but didn’t last long. It is not only local news broadcasts, severe weather bulletins and emergency situations, but the captioning starts and stops and speeds up to catch up on MSNBC and CNN throughout their daily programming. The process to report these problems is lengthy and involved and takes many moths to receive responses from the FCC.

    I am well aware that is but a portion of their regulations and responsibilities to the public but, being totally deaf and trying to keep up with all that is going on in MY city, state, country and at the international level, I am speaking out for all hearing impaired and deaf who are being discriminated against by the FCC regarding all news broadcasting. Receiving complete news broadcasts is as vital to us as it is to the hearing public.

    “The rules that the current FCC Chair has changed or evaded were intended to protect a broadcasting marketplace of ideas–to prevent any one voice from effectively drowning out other voices, other perspectives, in a community.”

    The FCC is now more than ever before part of the “follow the money” faction in this scramble for power within the government and supported by Congress. As with the loss of environmental protection, voting rights for all, religious takeover of rights of the few vs. rights of all, our public information sources are being controlled by the 1%. I am NOT referring to Trump’s “fake news” rants; watching rebroadcasts of his actual speeches is not “fake news”. The FCC does not, can not and should not, control the content of news broadcast – or weather and traffic bulletins.

  2. Parts of National Parks and National Monuments are are also on the chopping block. Some have already been sold without any publicity because … Charlottesville.

  3. Stephen; I also agree with Nancy, remember in 1939 the Fascists were also rounding up and disposing of the disabled in Germany and targeted countries.

  4. Dear Ms. Kennedy,
    All one has to do (if you can stomach it!) is listen to the word that mr. trump spewed last evening. His entire agenda is one of venomous rage and insane egoism..! How can we trust or take anything this maniac says as something good for anyone? The man is crazy – plain and simple and it is time to unwind this madness. This is not a good person. He needs to be locked away with the rest of his ‘minions’ and meanies. We need to stop his and his ‘mob’ insanity.

  5. Even without regulatory change, there is a very simple way to subvert laws. That is just don’t enforce them. That is also happening with great frequency under the current administration.

  6. WSBT Channel 22 in South Bend is a Sinclair station and it’s almost comical to watch the segments which Sinclair requires its affiliates to insert into their local news programming. One regular segment is the “Terrorism Alert” desk, where the broadcaster provides an update on some tidbit development going on somewhere in the Mideast but it’s obvious the intent is to keep fear levels high and viewers onsolod war footing. Last evening a Sinclair broadcaster named “Boris” (yes, BORIS!) did a longish piece on Trump’s trillion $ infrastrcture plans. It has all the cheerleeding polish and professionalism of Russian state-run TV. It is really quite disturbing and I watch for all of WSBT’s Facebook posts and call out the ones that are Sinclair propoganda for the Trump agenda.

  7. Did you click on the link to the Guardian story on John Oliver? Did you make a contribution? This is the other development in digital development: if I want news and opinion, I must “pay” RSN, truthout, truthdig, daily Kos, NYT, Wapo, Boston Globe, all the environmental orgs. I haven’t calculated the cost but at $10/month times 20 organizations – $2400/year. That’s just on the Internet. Add the Star and cable. When will I have to pay to read this ‘jaundiced look’?

  8. Sorry, but Fascism has been here for quite some time. Even under Barack Obama. Sinclair is bad news. Koch’s are bad news. Robert Mercer may be even worse and he’s the hedge fund billionaire behind Trump/Bannon. With Bannon rejected, this should get interesting because Mercer also is a major investor in Breitbart. Reports are Bannon has an ax to grind.

    Mainstream media is really controlled by the State Department under the guise of “manufacturing consent”. The media sources who fall outside the State Department purposes are coming under attack by Google, Twitter, and Facebook (corporate entities).

    The government is using Silicon Valley to do their dirty work so they can’t be accused of censorship. However, take a closer look at Obama’s National Defense Authorization Act. It allowed the State Department to setup an “anti-propaganda” division.

    Now, anybody with a lick of sense knows that our media conglomerates in this country is ALL propaganda for the state. The revolving door between government and private industry in Washington is hilarious. It’s also called Fascism. Using Silicon Valley to demonetize alternative media sites who offer dissenting opinions is state-sponsored censorship.

    It really doesn’t matter who is POTUS, the agenda continues. In Megyn Kelly’s interview with Vladimir Putin, he denied Russia’s interference in the election saying, “We understand how Washington works, it doesn’t matter who the POTUS is because they don’t have much influence over the Deep State.”

    Case in point…Donald Trump spent a decade calling the Afghan War a waste of time and resources and promised to end the senseless war. Suddenly, he’s committing more troops to the Afghan War. Imagine that?!?

  9. While president, Abraham Lincoln, to give his favorite news source an advantage over opposition news and to insure faster dissemination of Lincoln’s spin on events, he moved that news source (I could name the news outlet if I wanted to look it up), desk, files and telegraph, into the White House. But that move was not new and did not set precedent: Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic president, did nearly the same thing some thirty years before Lincoln.

  10. As Peggy Hannon aptly noted earlier today on this blog, “Even without regulatory change, there is a very simple way to subvert laws. That is just don’t enforce them.” Ignoring or evading laws has occurred and still occurs with great regularity in WH administrations over the years as per our continuing struggle with immigration laws.

    I suppose it’s easier to kick the problem down the road and let another administration deal with it.

  11. Todd @ 8:59 Great observations.

    Last night by coincidence I watched a documentary, I had purchased on a DVD – Orwell Rolls over in His Grave, made in 2003. It documents the consolidation of the Media into the McMega-Media and the effects on reporting. Consolidation had been going on but the Telecommunications Act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, allowed for the Mega-Mergers. Stories that are critical of Corporatism are simply not aired. The free press which was supposed to be an investigative watch dog has become a Fourth Branch of Government-the Propaganda Arm.

    The Media in the past has managed the news, it is more so today. FOX, CNN and MSNBC spend the vast amount of their air time not reporting news or events but commenting and editorializing. Some where in the bowels of Corporate Mc-Mega-Media a decision has been made on what you will, hear, read and watch all day.

  12. Recommended reading: The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu

  13. Louie, thanks for mentioning the McMega-Media, the Mega-Mergers, and reign of Corporatism that came into play in Bill Clinton’s WH administration.

    A week or so ago I happened to run across a Huff Post article from July 2017, “6 Ways Bill Clinton Helped Create the Opioid Crisis” which links our current opioid overdose crisis with Bill Clinton’s hand during his WH administration years. Yes, I voted for Bill Clinton two times; however, after a few years of observing the ramifications of his WH administration, I apologize for falling prey to his charisma, to his charm as a good ol’ boy. If I never see another Clinton name on a ballot, I will be a happy camper.


  14. Michael Moore warned about this very thing in an interview with Lawrence O’Donnell. He even thinks that those who are really in power intentionally don’t do anything to prevent Trump from making headlines every day by saying and doing outrageous things. The Bozo-in-Chief serves as a convenient distraction to their real agenda, which is the dismantling of various protections afforded us by regulatory agencies. News media are busily ticking off lists of Trump’s daily lies and gaffes while the EPA rolls back clean air and water standards, while financial regulations get gutted, while Sinclair takes over the airwaves, the list goes on and on.

    I wouldn’t be too concerned if it weren’t for the profound stupidity of some people, especially here in deep-red Indiana. I never understood how anyone could vote for him in the first place, and I am baffled as to how 34% of people still approve of him.

  15. Seizing control of government by authoritarians is frequently preceded by seizure of control of the media, which affords authoritarians with a platform from which to “frame” the “issues.” Those who disagree with such framing are ultimately subject to criminal prosecution as newly-defined and/or civil penalty. Fascism? Yes. Nancy called it what it is, and Sheila rightly observes that while the rest of us are fixated on Trump’s idiocies that some real moves toward that “ism” are being conducted in plain view while we have our eyes turned elsewhere. We need to promote 360-degree observations by all citizens now that Trump with his Phoenix rant has proven beyond a doubt that he should be spending his time in a quiet and wooded place of asylum rather than in the Oval Office.

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