Resolution on broadcast TV news jobs is an embarrassment

On Wednesday the Council’s Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans Committee considered a resolution proposed by Council members Kshama Sawant and Lisa Herbold that throws its support behind unionized broadcast TV news staff in their contract negotiation with Tegna, the parent company of KING 5. It’s a horrible, indefensible piece of legislation.

KING 5 owns a license to public airwaves, and as part of that license is required to “render such broadcasting service as will serve the public interest.” KING has had a long history of local broadcast news, and since Tegna (formerly Gannett) bought it a few years back has been reorganizing the news department. Earlier this year they offered early retirement to many of their most senior staff, and many chose to accept. The unions representing these workers (IATSE 600 and IBEW 46) are scared that further cuts are coming, and are running a public campaign to shore up the public’s belief that local news broadcasts are a critical public service.

The FCC’s “serve the public interest” mandate is actually very vague, and a remarkably low bar. Every commercial radio station also must fulfill it, and most music stations do so by having one hour of public-affairs on Sunday morning when everyone is either sleeping or in church. But Sawant and Herbold raise a fair point, that in aggregate having broadcasters capable of reporting on local news is an important resource, and critical in times of emergency such as a natural disaster, extreme weather events, or a terrorist attack. They point to a 2015 law passed by the Oregon legislature that refers to local news broadcasters as “first informers” (to complement “first responders”) and confers both special responsibilities and special privileges upon “professional local broadcast staff.”

The unions claim that Tegna, which owns several TV stations across the country, is trying to share more news content across stations to save money — one of the reasons they don’t need as much local staff. This is pretty obviously true. But they also claim that Tegna has a devious plan to “Uberize” the news staff by paying amateur, untrained citizens to cover news stories. They point to the Fresco news app as the model that they claim Tegna wants to adopt, and the reason that they have inserted into their proposed contract a “flexible jurisdiction” clause that allows them to replace union workers with “amateur, temporary, outsourced or otherwise nonunion personnel.”

The union reps are doing their job, in trying to preserve their members’ jobs. Unions are great; they provide an important service to their members, and as Council member Sawant noted today (and frequently), non-unionized workers also often benefit from the better terms that unionized workers negotiate — so unions’ good spreads beyond their own members. But much of the story that the union reps spun today was pure scaremongering.

They spun a story about how Fresco was encouraging untrained amateurs to run out into the middle of scary, dangerous situations. Actually, Fresco says just the opposite:

DO NOT PUT YOURSELF IN HARMS WAY TO GET A BETTER SHOT. Great photos and videos are fantastic, but stay safe and use caution approaching any scene. It’s also important to not break any laws in attempt to gather Fresco content.

And anyone who watched local May Day riot coverage can tell you that local TV news crews did exactly what their union rep is telling us that amateurs will do: they ran out into the middle of a dangerous situation, and some of them got hurt.

And by the way, if we go by the standard our local TV news stations set every time there is even the lightest dusting of snow in Seattle, their “professional, trained local news staff” are not doing the citizens of Seattle an important service in their handling of weather events. They are in it for the ratings and take many opportunities to sensationalize the news. And tell us when a baby was born at Safeway.

Much of local TV broadcast news is crap. It’s not all crap, but it’s packaged (by union staff) into short soundbites that trivialize complex issues and emphasize emotional conflict. It’s in a downward spiral: fewer people are watching, so it’s less profitable, so they cut costs, then quality goes down further, and more people tune out. Repeat. It’s also highly competitive, both with other local TV stations, cable news, radio, newspapers, and of course the Internet.

Competition can be good; consumers usually win. It also drives innovation. What would a local TV news program look like where reporting was done by citizen journalists? Is it such a bad thing if someone tries it?

Competition can also be bad; the union rep invoked Gresham’s Law, which suggests that “bad money forces out good money,” to suggest that cheap, bad news coverage will force out expensive, good news coverage (if any of that still exists on local TV news). That’s a hypothesis based on an imperfect analogy; no one should accept that at face value (particularly an economist like Sawant who should know better).

Unfortunately, the unions clearly had a large hand in writing this legislation (in the hearing Sawant even deferred to them as to whether an amendment was acceptable — she does this often and without shame). So it’s filled with “evil corporation” language, and elitist nonsense about “professional, trained news staff” who are apparently the only ones capable of committing acts of journalism in a responsible manner and deserve to have “special access to public emergencies.”

Yes, that hits close to home for me, and for all of my colleagues on the Internet who are proud of the work that we do despite the fact that we have neither the resources nor the leverage that our counterparts in broadcast news or newspaper publishing do. Who gets to decide who the “professional, trained” people are that get special privileges the rest of the riff-raff don’t? And in whose estimation is their work better than ours?

Council member Burgess, who largely supported the resolution, did manage to get one section excised which would have directed the city’s Office of Emergency Management to “monitor” local broadcast stations for their ability to  report on emergency information. He pointed out two concerns: first a narrow one that the responsibility to do that already lies with the federal and state governments; and second that from a First Amendment perspective the notion of city government “monitoring” local news stations is a very poor precedent to set. We can broaden that second statement: the notion of the City Council passing a resolution that tells the local broadcast news station how they should be reporting the news is chilling. The resolution says:

The Seattle City Council believes that the maintenance of professional, trained, local news staff at Seattle-area broadcast stations is critical to enable adequate coverage of local news and information, particularly in times of public emergencies, and to provide sufficient public information for an informed citizenry, and stimulate democratic discussion and debate. Substituting this local professional workforce with outsourced amateur or temporary journalists and technicians will undermine this critical functionality.

In other words: “We expect you to have paid corporate employees as the face and words of the local news.” Because that will surely guarantee honest, thoughtful, useful, unbiased reporting. Citizens simply cannot be trusted to do that. The City Council likes the business model you’ve been using for decades, and insists that you never change it:

The Seattle City Council requests and expects that Tegna Inc. will retain publicly owned airwaves currently used to broadcast KING 5, and maintain its professional quality unionized workforce to serve the public interest.

But wait, there’s more. The City Council feels so strongly about this that they feel the need to threaten the financial stability of Tegna:

The Seattle City Council calls upon all public entities that may own Tegna stock to consider divestiture of said stock.

Hey, no First Amendment issues there! And by the way, Tegna did not have an opportunity to speak at the hearing; one would think that before passing a resolution taking a side against a company in a contract negotiation and encouraging divestiture from that company they would actually want to hear from that company. Apparently not. I have an inquiry in to committee chair Gonzalez’s office as to whether Tegna was invited to the hearing.

And just to round-out the misrepresentations and scare-mongering in the resolution, they included this:

… on January 10, 2016, the Boston Globe reported that on March 29, 2016, the FCC will allow broadcasters to sell federally licensed frequencies to the highest bidder, creating the means for venture capitalists to take control of publicly owned broadcast licenses for the purpose of profit maximization rather than service to local communities;

Here’s the Boston Globe article referenced above. The resolution completely misrepresents what is actually a very cool program being run by the FCC, called the Broadcast Incentive Auction. It recognizes two things:

  • Now that the switchover to digital TV has happened, many stations have licenses to broadcast more than one signal on a single frequency;
  • If the current licenses (and signals) were all compacted into a narrower range of frequencies, then that would free up large sections of bandwidth that could be used to offer the thing we all want: more wireless data services.

Demand for wireless data bandwidth is growing at an astonishing rate, and the FCC has come up with a clever way to compact existing licenses to recapture and re-issue valuable bandwidth. THIS IS A HUGE PUBLIC BENEFIT TO LOCAL COMMUNITIES. YAY FCC FOR BEING SMART.

The mechanism by which they are doing this is also clever: a two-sided auction where the FCC works in the middle to match broadcast TV buyers and sellers so that existing licenses in the upper range can be moved down into the lower range.  After everyone is moved out of the upper range, the FCC can re-sell that frequency range in a new license for wireless data services. The auction is “double blind” for fairness; no one is forced to disclose that they are taking part until the results are announced, so that no one has the option of gaming the system.

This scheme recognizes that a company like KING has a few different options for what to do with a license that the FCC might want to recapture:

  • It could swap it for an equivalent lower-frequency channel;
  • It could sell it off, and use a second channel on an existing frequency. In KING’s case, it could decide to sell its KONG broadcast license, and move KONG from channel 6 to a secondary signal position on KING’s channel 5;
  • It could sell it off and close up the business.

But the resolution suggests that they are most likely to take the third option: just sell off KING’s license for large amounts of money, close up shop, and leave town. That’s just ridiculous scaremongering. Nevertheless, the resolution tells Tegna to break the FCC’s rules, and how it should run its business:

The Seattle City Council requests and expects that all local Seattle broadcasters will fully disclose their plans for the FCC’s March 29, 2016, spectrum auction, a sale of public airwaves, and any plans to substantially change longstanding contractual commitments to the FCC to provide professionally produced local news in alignment with public-interest responsibilities, including responsibilities as First Informers.

Apart from the fact that the auction has already been underway for almost three months (and is nearly concluded), and disclosing would break the FCC’s rules, none of the stations have contractual commitment to the FCC to provide professionally produced local news; there are many ways they can fulfill their commitment to serve the public interest, and the City Council has no business telling them which one to do.

The bottom line: this is a really terrible piece of legislation, in which the City Council would take a clear side in a labor negotiation without hearing from the other side. It would set horrible precedents for first Amendment violations, it would meddle in the broadcast news business by telling KING and other local stations how to run their business, and it shows a deeply flawed understanding of what the FCC does to issue broadcast licenses and manage frequency spectrum for the public good. Tegna is no saint, and I hope the unions get solid concessions in their labor negotiations, but the City Council should not be pressuring Tegna to stick to a business model that might not be sustainable by declaring them unilaterally (and after the fact) to be a “first informer.”

Nevertheless, the resolution passed out of committee, and will go to the full Council on Monday for a final vote.

As an aside, other than turning up their nose at “amateurs” I don’t think this reflects poorly on the union reps. Quite the opposite: kudos to them for fighting hard for their members and exploring every angle for how to get leverage in negotiations. The shame is with the City Council, for not seeing this for what it is.