What would Jesus sue? The FCC, it seems

United Church of Christ not serene about Sinclair media ownership rule relaxation

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has picked up another foe in its ongoing love-in with Big Cable. But this time it's the Big Guy. Yes, we're talking about Jesus.

The United Church of Christ has joined four other organizations in a lawsuit against the federal regulator over its efforts to tear up local media ownership rules.

The decision, pushed by FCC chair Ajit Pai, has already drawn a significant amount of criticism for being just one of several made by the FCC that directly benefit the media company Sinclair Broadcasting.

Pai is under investigation from the FCC's inspector general over suspicions that he is acting to "improperly benefit" Sinclair, and has been publicly criticized by lawmakers and one of his own commissioners.

Now there's a lawsuit to boot.

Filed in the Washington DC Court of Appeals, the church – along with Free Press, Common Cause, the Communications Workers of America and the Office of Communication – argue that the FCC has failed to fully consider the impact of its decision to relax the limits on how much media output one company is allowed to control in a specific area.

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The focus is on the use of Joint Sales Agreements (JSAs) and Shared Services Agreements (SSAs), which are typically used to help TV stations reach economies of scale when it comes to advertising, but which have been used for several decades by Sinclair Broadcasting to get around ownership rules.

Money talks

The relaxation of the rules is particularly relevant because the FCC is due to decide on a $3.9bn merger between Sinclair and Tribune Media that would give the merged company an enormous media footprint across the United States, reaching 72 per cent of the population. The proposed deal was only made possible thanks to rule changes passed by Pai.

While it may seem strange to see a church involved in suing a federal regulator that is in fact quite a bit of history between the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the FCC – particularly during the civil rights era in the 1960s.

It was at the center of a landmark decision back in 1966 when the UCC sued the FCC over the extension of a TV license for WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi. The TV station was renowned for its racist programming and even refused to show images of local lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who later went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court Justice.

Local citizens opposed the license renewal but the FCC refused to accept their opposition, or the UCC's right to sue it. And so the UCC went to court and argued that approach was unconstitutional. It won.

But the FCC still refused to act on the complaints, leading to the UCC to sue it again. That lawsuit resulted in a damning decision against the federal regulator by the Supreme Court in which WLBT lost its license and Chief Justice Warren Burger slammed the FCC over the fact that it "does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty."

The decision was a sea change in how TV stations functioned thereafter. Community groups used the decision to pressure stations into producing content that reflected their lives and interests - particularly African-American communities - rather than the owners' perspective.

The UCC sued the FCC again in 1969 in order to force it to adopt equal opportunity regulations.

And more

And the UCC has sued the FCC on at least three other occasions (1987, 1990 and 2008) - there may be others that we've missed - each time pushing the case for greater say in how their local TV station in run by local citizens.

As such, the relaxing of rules on local media ownership this year – something that is almost certain to lead to a reduction in the diversity of programming – is right up the UCC's street.

It is also worth noting that Sinclair Broadcasting continues to draw criticism for forcing its TV stations to run segments, produced centrally, that have been described as partisan propaganda.

And, according to Jessica González, senior counsel of Free Press, the FCC's recent decision is just as discriminatory as it was back in the 1960s.

"People of color own a pathetically low number of broadcast stations in the US," González points out, adding that, "consolidation makes it much more difficult for broadcasters of color to enter the market. This latest move by the Pai FCC is patently discriminatory."

She also argues that "runaway consolidation gouges newsrooms and hurts communities - especially marginalized communities that more often depend on broadcast TV for local news."

It is fitting then that the UCC is involved in this case. Although it is a sad reflection of our current times that we have an effective re-run of a case that started back in 1962 with TV station owners pushing their agenda and their perspective, with little or no consideration given to the local community. ®

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