By Barrington M. Salmon
WASHINGTON — More than 100 protestors lined the sidewalk in front of the Federal Communications Commission late last week to demand that agency officials vote on a prospective merger between Standard General and TEGNA, Inc. The merger could be a game-changer in minority ownership of media properties.
For more than a year, some demonstrators said, the FCC has refused to schedule an up-and-down vote on a merger that supporters say would: result in a 300% increase of minority-owned or minority-controlled, commercial, full-power television stations; increase the number of minority-owned, commercial full-power television stations in the United States from 24 to 85; and ratchet up the number of Asian-American-owned or Asian-American-controlled stations from four to 65.
In February last year, TEGNA, which owns 64 television stations in 51 markets, agreed to be purchased by Standard General for $8.6 billion, including debt.
“I came to support the deal because it would be good for us,” said the Rev. Kirsten John Foy, president and founder of Arc of Justice, a New York-based civil rights organization. “(A vote) is of great and historic significance. It is an opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling. We have few minority owners at the top. They are locked out and a number of barriers are placed in front of them. We need an adequate and appropriate representation of women and people of color.
“If we’re at the table we can influence the narrative, not one imposed on us that’s not true to us.”
Foy emphasized Standard General CEO Soo Kim’s commitment to equity, inclusion and diversity. He sent a letter of support last year in which he expressed confidence in the deal.
“Our confidence in Standard General and TEGNA is founded not in future promise, but on past record and a corporate culture that reflects the American ideals of diversity, equity and inclusion,” the letter stated. “It is founded on Soo Kim’s personal and professional commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and his vision to enlarge the footprint of people of color in broadcast media.”
No community has a greater interest in the diversification of America’s broadcast media than African Americans, Foy said.
“We have long sought and fought for expanded access to ownership, administration, operational, programmatic opportunities within the television broadcast industry,” he said. “(Kim’s) new company will operationalize a robust and rigorous vision of inclusion and industrial-scale access for communities of color, writ large, but specifically to the Black community which, through long-suffering and moral fortitude, has long sought and fought for.”
But there is considerable pushback from critics, ranging from the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America (NABET-CWA) and The NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, which filed a petition to dismiss or deny the deal with the Federal Communications Commission last year. They argue that an “unprecedented array of sequenced transactions and swaps” are actually an attempt to “game the commission’s ownership and retransmission consent rules in ways that contravene the commission’s public interest standard,” according to a June 22, 2022 broadcast and cable report.
Charlie Braico, head of NABET-CWA, contends that FCC scrutiny is necessary for the agency to safeguard local news coverage in an era when TV and radio stations, as well as newspapers, are being snapped up by hedge funds, and other news outlets are being shuttered.
“We have already seen the detrimental effects that Wall Street control of local journalism produces — news deserts for local communities, created by consolidation, and even increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals,” Braico said. “Now Wall Street funds like Apollo Global Management have turned their attention to broadcast TV, and it is crucial to determine if the Standard General-TEGNA mega-merger will serve the public interest and not reduce coverage of local issues, impose viewpoints that are out of step with the community, or put jobs in local newsrooms at risk.”
More than 80% of Americans say they find local news coverage on television and radio to be most trustworthy, Braico added: “We must not violate that trust by ceding control of local news to a handful of hedge funds.”
Outside the FCC building protesters wearing black T-shirts with white letters that read “HOLD A VOTE” stood resolutely in the cool morning. Charles Yoon walked down the line, shaking each demonstrator’s hand while bowing deeply.
“Soo Kim has been a leader in the Korean community for a long time,” said Yoon, president of the Korean American Association of Greater New York. “He is an expert in diversity. This expansion is very important for the community at large. I came to support the deal because it would be very important to increase diversity.”
Yoon, an attorney who traveled with protesters on a bus from New York, said he understood that the proposed merger has not been voted on, and that it has been sent to an administrative judge.
“I hope we show the FCC how much we care…,” he said.
Inside the building at the open meeting, four FCC commissioners — closely watched by almost a dozen protestors — reviewed an agenda of five items. At the end of the hearing, after a short break, Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworchel fended off questions during a press briefing about why the Standard General-TEGNA merger hasn’t been put to a vote.
She cited the fact that the issue is the subject of litigation and in the hands of an administrative judge as the reason she couldn’t elaborate. As the chair, Rosenworchel has the prerogative to bring the issue to a vote.
Commissioner Brendan Carr said he’s concerned about the delay, which goes against the FCC’s stated support for diversity.
“I believe the application deserves a straight up-and-down vote,” said Carr. “Diversity is important.”
Carr is the senior Republican on the FCC and once served as the agency’s general counsel
“The FCC should remove any impediments,” he said. “It’s been a year-long process. Local news is sputtering by the moment.”
With that reality, Carr said, the FCC needs to create incentives and the Standard General-TEGNA deal — if approved — would represent “a really break-glass moment.”
Carr said in a Feb. 24, 2023 joint statement with Commissioner Nathan Simington: “Hundreds of local newspapers have shut down over the last few years alone. This trend is part of a broader decline in the investments necessary to sustain the journalists and reporters that are vital to communities across the country. Many of the nation’s local TV stations are trying to step up and expand their news-gathering operations. At this moment, the FCC should be working to encourage more of the investment necessary for these local broadcasters to innovate and thrive. It does the opposite today. After a protracted, nearly yearlong review, the commission should be providing the parties with a decision on the merits – not an uncertain future.”
Barrington M. Salmon writes for NNPA Newswire.