The prospect of a right-wing media conglomerate expanding might cause some to think, “It can’t happen here,” but there’s a local connection between Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed purchase of Tribune Media.
Plus, legitimate concerns are similar to worrying about a wildfire that’s miles away, or realizing that an unrepentant convicted sexual predator has moved nearby.
Sinclair, the country’s largest owner of local TV stations, buying Tribune’s 42 stations should trouble people who care about democracy.
Responding to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) request to detail promised sales to meet rules on ownership limits, Sinclair last month said it would divest stations to comply after its $3.9 billion merger with Tribune, but it wouldn’t identify which stations because the government could relax limits.
Based in Hunt Valley, Md., Sinclair has 589 channels in 89 U.S. markets, according to information retrieved Oct. 19 from its web site. Sinclair’s 2016 annual report states its holdings include WHOI (which it has licensed and owned since 2013, although WHOI is now contractually operated by Quincy Media, owner of WEEK). Sinclair also owns WICS in Champaign, WICD in Decatur, KHQA in Quincy, and KTVO in Ottumwa.
Many object to the threat of limiting diverse perspectives and price increases passed on to consumers. Opponents range from former FCC chair Michael Copps and HBO humorist John Oliver to Dish Network and conservative media companies Newsmax and Glenn Beck’s Blaze.
Sinclair promised to boost original content like its half-hour “Full Measure” program hosted by Sharyl Attkisson, who left CBS over a dispute with her coverage of Benghazi and the Affordable Care Act. Sinclair has required stations to air conservative commentaries by Mark Hyman and Boris Epshteyn (a former Trump aide), and also shows such as the anti-John Kerry film “Stolen Honor” as a prime-time “news program” before the 2004 election, and its daily “Terrorism Alert Desk” (which last year featured the French debate over “burkinis,” presumably because Muslims were involved).
Critics say that instead of letting arguments’ merits or information or entertainment value determine what airs, corporate and political overlords decide, turning local news into right-wing propaganda. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner in 2016 told a business group the Trump campaign made a deal with Sinclair to “secure better media coverage,” according to Politico. “In exchange, Sinclair broadcast Trump interviews without commentary.”
FCC ownership caps are supposed to ensure many voices on the airwaves (a public resource, which is why they’re licensed to operate in the public interest). A corporation can control no more than 39 percent of all U.S. TV households, and the “duopoly” rule limits ownership of multiple network affiliates within a market. Sinclair could have 10 markets where it owns two ABC-CBS-Fox-NBC affiliates, including St. Louis and Des Moines.
However, FCC chair Ajit Pai, promoted by President Trump, is expected to push for relaxing such safeguards.
“Reports suggest that the FCC plans to change major media ownership rules in a way that would further benefit Sinclair,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. “The proposed Sinclair merger and the recent actions by the FCC continue to pose very troubling questions, particularly about coordination between the Trump administration and Sinclair.”
Craig Aaron, president of the Free Press Action Fund, added, “Trump-favoring mega-chain gets rules changed — and expects others to be erased — so it can put its cookie-cutter newscasts in nearly 70 percent of local markets across the country. I feel terrible for the local journalists who will be forced to set aside their news judgment to air Trump administration talking points and reactionary commentaries.” Such an acquisition isn’t in the public interest, but Trump’s Justice Department is expected to release its anti-trust analysis next month. State attorneys general could weigh in, but public opinion is key.