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  • Emanne Khan

An Overview of U.S. Media Reform, From Ownership Caps to Net Neutrality

The American media landscape changed dramatically on January 7 when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the indefinite suspension of then-President Donald Trump’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. The next day, Twitter Safety announced that “After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” The “context” Twitter alluded to was the events of January 6th, when pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol and disrupted the certification of presidential election results.

The social media bans were an unprecedented move by both Facebook and Twitter to restrict the platforms of a major public official and immediately sparked backlash from free speech advocates. The actions led many to question if tech companies have become too powerful. However, this isn’t the first time Americans have debated the role of the media in our society. Advocates for media reform have been organizing for decades, and media reform will probably end up on President Joseph R. Biden’s agenda at some point in his presidency.

Origins of the Push for Media Reform

The current wave of the U.S. media reform movement can trace its roots back to the turn of the century. In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, a major piece of legislation that aimed to promote competition in the telecommunications industry through deregulation. As part of the push for deregulation, the act eliminated caps on the number of TV stations a single broadcast network could own and opened the door to similar consolidation in the radio industry, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Under the George W. Bush administration, members of the Federal Communications Commission sought to further deregulate telecommunications through several rule changes. “One would allow a single network to control television stations reaching 45 percent of all American households,” Robert McChesney and John Nichols wrote in the 2004 essay collection, Patriotism, Democracy, and Common Sense: Restoring America's Promise at Home and Abroad. “Another would allow a media company to buy up a local daily newspaper, as many as three television stations, eight radio stations, and the cable system in a single market.”

Consolidation can raise prices, and the proposed rules sparked opposition from private citizens and media titans alike. Across the country, groups of Americans protested against the proposed rules, fearing that they would exacerbate bias in media coverage of the Iraq War. In a 2003 op-ed published in the Washington Post, CNN founder Ted Turner predicted that the new rules “will stifle debate, inhibit new ideas and shut out smaller businesses trying to compete.”

Thanks in part to two dissenting FCC commissioners’ efforts to inform the public about the potential ramifications of further deregulation, McChesney and Nichols estimate that as many as three million Americans contacted the government to express their opposition to the rules. Following the wave of backlash, the Senate moved to block the changes.

The Issues at Stake

Nearly two decades after the FCC’s failed attempt to pass telecommunications deregulation rules, corporate consolidation continues to be a pressing issue across other sectors of media. As traditional media organizations compete with tech giants such as Google and Facebook for ad revenue, massive conglomerates are buying up local outlets to maximize their market share. Recent statistics compiled by Free Press show that iHeartMedia, the largest corporation in broadcast radio, owns nearly twice as many stations as its next-largest competitor. The Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that five companies owned nearly 40% of all local TV-stations, and as of 2018, the 10 largest companies in the newspaper industry owned almost half of the country’s dailies, according to the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

As it turns out, the entity in charge of an organization drives the type of news that it covers. When conglomerate owners like Sinclair acquire local television stations, it results in “substantial increases in coverage of national politics at the expense of local politics,” according to a 2019 study by political scientists Gregory Martin of Stanford and Joshua McCrain of Emory.

In the telecommunications industry, mergers and acquisitions have dwindled in recent years, and the focus for advocates has shifted to protecting net neutrality. In 2015, the FCC voted to approve a set of net neutrality rules that required broadband internet service providers to treat all traffic equally. “That means your broadband provider, which controls your access to the Internet, can't block or slow down the services or applications you use over the Web,” Marguerite Reardon explained for CNET. “It also means your Internet service provider -- whether it's a cable company or telephone service -- can't create so-called fast lanes that force content companies like Netflix to pay an additional fee to deliver their content to customers faster.”

The net neutrality provisions didn’t last long. Under President Trump, the FCC voted to repeal the rules. In justifying the repeal, then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai referred to net neutrality as a “heavy-handed regulatory framework” that imposed unnecessary burdens on internet service providers and stifled innovation.

Although it was upheld by a court of appeals in 2019, the repeal of net neutrality inspired widespread opposition, particularly among Democrats. Last October, when the FCC decided to maintain the repeal in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said in a statement that “Without net neutrality protections, it’s just a matter of time before big broadband providers start raising prices, slowing down internet speeds, and making it harder for families, small business, and students to access the opportunities to recover and rebuild from this pandemic.”

What to Expect from Biden

The president possesses considerable power to drive national communications and media policy given that they appoint the five members of the FCC. After former Chairman Ajit Pai stepped down in January, President Biden announced the promotion of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to the role of acting chairwoman. While the FCC is currently made up of two Democrats (including Rosenworcel) and two Republicans, Biden will likely seek to create a Democratic majority on the commission with his nominee to replace Pai.

Democrats tend to support net neutrality, and Rosenworcel dissented to the 2017 decision to repeal it. It’s not known when Biden will move to appoint a fifth commissioner, but if they are confirmed, the commission can revive net neutrality protections with a majority vote. Democratic control of Congress also opens the door to possible federal legislation in favor of net neutrality.

In the realm of Big Tech, there’s a good chance the Biden administration will move to curb large companies’ powers through antitrust policies. In December 2020, the Federal Trade Commission sued Facebook for “illegally maintaining its personal social networking monopoly through a years-long course of anticompetitive conduct.” This anticompetitive conduct includes the platform’s purchases of competitors Instagram and WhatsApp. The lawsuit is still making its way through the courts, but Biden and his allies will no doubt make an effort to see it through.

Other media reform issues of concern for the Biden administration are expanding broadband internet access and advancing consumer privacy rights.

If there’s anything to be learned from the events of the previous two decades, it’s that the American media landscape is subject to rapid change. Nevertheless, some general trends have taken shape such as the consolidation of local media under corporate ownership and the steadily growing power of Big Tech. Today, millions of Americans access the internet, consume news, and use social media on a daily basis, and it’s worth knowing the recent history of media reform to understand current issues. Change is always just a click away.


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