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 that 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 point out would: result in a 300 percent increase of minority-owned or controlled commercial full-power television stations; increase in the number of minority-owned commercial full-power television stations in the US from 24 to 85; and ratchet up the number of Asian-American-owned or controlled stations from 4 to 65.
In February last year, Tegna, which owns 64 television stations in 51 US markets, agreed to be acquired by Standard General for $8.6 billion including debt.
“I came to support the deal because it would be good for us. (A vote) is of great and historic significance. It is an opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling,” said The Rev. Kirsten John Foy, president and founder of Arc of Justice, a New York-based Civil Rights organization.
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“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 Kim’s commitment to equity, inclusion, and diversity. He sent a letter of support last year in which he expressed confidence in the deal and Standard General CEO Soo Kim.
“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 said. “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.”
Foy said no community has a greater interest in the diversification of America’s broadcast media than African Americans.
“We have long sought and fought for expanded access to ownership, administration, operational, programmatic opportunities within the television broadcast industry. [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 (NABET)-CWA and The NewsGuild-CWA 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, Broadcasting and Cable story.
Meanwhile, Charlie Braico, head of NABET-CWA, contends that the 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 megamerger 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 percent 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, protestors wearing black T-shirts with white lettering saying, “HOLD A VOTE,” stood resolutely in the cool morning. Charles Yoon walked down the line shaking each demonstrators’ hand while bowing deeply.
“Soo Kim has been a leader in the Korean community for a long time. He is an expert in diversity. This expansion is very important for the community at large,” said Yoon, president of the Korean American Association of Greater New York. “I came to support the deal because it would be very important to increase diversity.”
Yoon, an attorney who traveled with protestors on a bus from New York, said he understood that the proposed merger has not been voted on and has been sent to an administrative judge.
“I hope we show the FCC how much we care …”
Inside, at the open meeting, the four commissioners with the Federal Communications Commission – closely watched by almost a dozen protestors – went through an agenda with five items. At the end of the hearing, after a short break, Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworchel fended off questions during a post-hearing press briefing about why the Standard General-TEGNA question hasn’t been put to a vote. She cited the fact that the issue is the subject of litigation and currently in the hands of an administrative judge as reasons why she couldn’t elaborate. She, as the chair, has the prerogative to bring the issue to a vote and even though some commissioners desire a vote, whether that happens is out of their hands.
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. Diversity is important. The FCC should remove any impediments,” said Carr, the senior Republican on the FCC who once served as the agency’s general counsel. “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 this deal – if approved – would represent “a really break-glass moment.”
“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,” he said in a Feb 24, 2023, joint statement with Commissioner Nathan Simington after the public review.
“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.”