Janine Jackson interviewed Movement Alliance Project’s Hannah Sassaman about Prometheus v. FCC for the February 5, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: A big part of modern media criticism involves illustrating the impact of corporate ownership (and sponsorship) on the media we see, including the effect of concentration of ownership—more and more radio and TV stations in fewer and fewer hands—in devastating local media and narrowing the range of voices and perspectives media reflect overall.
If the influence of media’s mega-corporate control is evident in branch and leaf, the hidden soil, as it were, is the policy that determines who gets to own outlets. A conversation about representation or diversity can only go so far without hitting that bedrock. That recognition is part of what’s behind Prometheus Radio Project v. FCC, in which the federal agency tasked with protecting the public interest, once again asks the court for support in jettisoning it.
Here to, no doubt, put a finer point on it, is Hannah Sassaman. A former organizer with Prometheus Radio Project, she’s now policy director at Movement Alliance Project, also a party to the Supreme Court case. She joins us by phone from Philadelphia. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Hannah Sassaman.
Hannah Sassaman: Thank you so much.
JJ: Listeners know that media owners have been fighting for decades to get rid of the rules that restricted their ability to grow to a certain share of the market, or to own multiple outlets in one city. And they’ve had some success, unfortunately, with a pretty captured FCC. What is the FCC trying to do here? And have they come up with some new argument this time around? Or is it the same kind of “Trust in the market and all will be well”?
HS: Sure, that’s a great question. So if you go all the way back to 1996, under the then–Bill Clinton Federal Communications Commission, in Congress there was a law that was passed called the Telecom Act of 1996. And that went in and said, all right, in media markets all over the country—whether you live in Rochester, New York; or Tulsa, Oklahoma; or San Antonio, Texas—we’re going to make it so just a handful of companies, like maybe one newspaper, for example, could own both that local daily paper as well as a handful of radio stations, a television station. And that’s the process, as you just described, of media consolidation, meaning that we have fewer and fewer owners owning outlets.
Now, the Commission, under that Telecom Act of ’96, is required to analyze whether or not relaxing media ownership impacts the number of women’s voices, women-owned stations, and the number of minority-owned stations, so Black and brown outlets around the country. Now, what the FCC has not done is actually its homework. So every four years, they go around, and they say that they’ve looked around and examined ownership and they say, “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it, letting companies own more stations, own more outlets in these markets, won’t impact that racial and gender diversity.”
But then groups like mine, groups like Prometheus Radio, and other organizations around the country, represented by truly dogged public interest lawyers, said, “Hold up, you haven’t done your work, you haven’t actually proven that it hasn’t hurt these markets.” And it’s just absolutely evident, if you go around the country, that we’ve seen the impact of consolidation, as it’s already progressed, on squashing diverse voices and really lifting up primarily conservative ones.
If you take a look, for example, at Sinclair Broadcasting, which is one of the largest owners of broadcast television outlets in the United States, those are companies that literally were promoting, during this pandemic, conspiracy theories. They were taking rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration and creating editorial content and distributing it and parroting it around the country. So that was absolutely a really major cause—in an America where 90% of our community listens to broadcast media at least every week; it’s not just all online—it was a major cause of the polarization that’s led to some of the biggest upsets in American democracy that we’ve ever seen.
So the Prometheus v. FCC case was decided multiple times in what’s called the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where Prometheus is headquartered, where my organization, Movement Alliance Project, is headquartered. And the court said, “Yes, we don’t think the FCC has done its homework.” And it’s gone back and told the FCC to actually show, this time, whether or not it impacted the diversity it is required to protect. And so the government appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. We had our arguments just a couple weeks ago, and we’ll wait to see what the Supreme Court decides. That’s where we’re at.
JJ: The Third Circuit Court, in fact, said the FCC methodology was so flawed and “so insubstantial, that it would receive a failing grade in any introductory statistics class.” So it’s like they don’t even bother, really; they just show up and say, “market, market, market, market,” or “outdated rules,” you know, “now we have the internet.” And some folks will find that persuasive.
So I wanted to lift up something that you mentioned about why it matters, because I think we’ll hear this even on the progressive side, people will say, “Oh, one outlet owning two TV stations and the radio station, and maybe the newspaper in a market—that sounds bad, but we have the internet. So really, we have a lot of choices.” Speak to that a little bit, if you would.
HS: Sure, I’m happy to speak to that. So here in Philadelphia, just as an example, this is the poorest big city in the United States. So we have more people in poverty, and in deep poverty, than any other big city per capita in the country.
So what that means is, is that we also have the second-worst broadband penetration, right, of any large city in the United States. And that’s positively stunning. I could go out in the street right now, outside my house, and look east, and I would literally see the headquarters of Comcast, right, the biggest telecommunications company in the United States; I would see it from about 30 blocks away, it’s that tall. It dominates the city, this massive tower—two towers they have, actually. So even in their own hometown, because of poverty, because they have these high-priced services that are really difficult to get to people when they can’t afford them, we have this entire population that simply doesn’t have regular access to the internet. And they struggle even to have mobile device access, too.
And so what that means is that broadcast outlets, independent, culturally relevant, trusted local sources, are the way—especially in this pandemic, in this economic crisis—that communities of historic Black residents, homeowners who have lived in Philadelphia for generations, a growing vibrant set of immigrant communities from Cambodia to the Puebla region of Mexico, these are communities that absolutely rely on trusted sources, that speak in their contexts, to transmit literally vital health information.
So if we’re taking a look right now, for example, at the utterly chaotic transmission of vaccine information in cities like Philadelphia, the fact that even in poor neighborhoods, where local pharmacies are stocking vaccines specifically to try to serve folks who are eligible in those underserved populations, we still see higher-income, mostly white, people accessing those vaccines. That is case in point of why an independent, vibrant local media system that uses the appropriate technology to actually reach people, whether that be radio, television, print, the trusted community sources—we’re seeing the failure in real time.
So it’s absolutely imperative that the Supreme Court listen to the arguments that came from all of these plaintiffs together, from all of these parties together. And we’re hopeful that the arguments that were presented to the Supreme Court really take the current moment that we’re in into sharp relief. It’s just as important now as it was in 1996, and it’s deeply relevant to the uncertain times we’re facing.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Hannah Sassaman, policy director at Movement Alliance Project, online at MovementAlliance.org. Her article, “How Media Consolidation Paved the Way for Right-Wing Insurrection,” can be found on InTheseTimes.com. Hannah Sassaman, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
HS: Absolutely my pleasure. Thank you.