Despite Protests, No FCC Movement on Vote for Standard General-TEGNA Deal
By Barrington M. Salmon
For well over a year, a vote on the proposed $8.6 billion deal between TEGNA and Standard General by the Federal Communications Commission has been delayed because the transaction is under scrutiny.
At an open meeting late last month, the issue took centerstage although it was not among those topics commissioners considered. Protestors inside the meeting auditorium and outside in front of the FCC were out in numbers trying to coax and cajole commissioners to schedule a simple up-and-down vote.
That didn’t happen. However, protestors were not shy about their desire and intentions.
“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. “We have few minority owners at the top. We are locked out and a number of barriers are placed in front of us. We need 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 was one of more than 100 protestors who lined the sidewalk in front of the FCC in downtown Washington. He and other supporters argue that allowing Standard General and TEGNA to become one entity could be a game changer in terms of minority ownership in America’s current white, male-dominated media environment.
Foy emphasized Kim’s commitment to equity, inclusion, and diversity to a reporter and said so in a letter of support he drafted on behalf of his organization last year in which he expressed confidence in the deal and Soo Kim, Standard General’s CEO.
“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.”
No community has a greater interest in the diversification of America’s broadcast media than African Americans, Foy added.
“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 substantial and significant opposition from critics ranging from other media entities and unions such as 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 FCC last year. Union officials contend 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.
Charlie Braico, head of NABET-CWA, presented his concerns and opposition in a guest column in Broadcasting and Cable. FCC scrutiny, he said, is necessary 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 at an alarming rate.
“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,” he asserted.
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. Supporters point to the potential benefits including a 300 percent increase of minority-owned or controlled commercial full-power television stations; expansion of the number of minority-owned commercial full-power television stations in the US from 24 to 85; and a surge in the number of Asian-American-owned or controlled stations from 4 to 65.
Outside the Federal Communications Commission building, Korean and African-American 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 that its fate is in the hands of an administrative judge.
“I hope we show the FCC how much we care,” he said.
Inside the meeting, four FCC commissioners – closely watched by almost a dozen protestors – went through a five-item agenda. At the end of the hearing, in a Q&A with the media, Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworchel tried to explain why the Standard General-TEGNA question had not yet been put to a vote.
She said the transaction is currently the subject of litigation and is before an administrative law judge and therefore she’s prohibited from talking about it. But Rosenworchel did say that she firmly believes “that diversity of the media needs to reflect the diversity of this country.”
When asked, Commissioner Brendan Carr said Rosenworchel, as the chair, has the prerogative to bring the issue to a vote, and even though at least two commissioners desire a vote, whether that happens is out of their hands. Meanwhile, the FCC has come under intense criticism for seeming to be going against its declared support for diversity.
Carr, for his part, said he’s concerned about the delay because of the message it sends.
“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 inducements, adding that 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.”