In May, the Sinclair Broadcast Group — one of the largest owners of TV stations in the country-- announced plans to spend $3.9 billion to acquire Tribune Media, parent company of 42 TV stations located in larger markets like Chicago and Los Angeles. The resulting merger would create a broadcasting behemoth of more that 230 stations reaching some 72 percent of the television viewing audience coast-to-coast.
The Federal Communication Commission and the Justice Department are both currently reviewing the deal, as well they should. If the purchase is allowed to move forward, it could have devastating consequences not just for the quality of local television but for democracy itself.
To begin with, Sinclair has a well-earned reputation for putting profits ahead of the public interest. The stations it absorbs as part of the Tribune Media merger will undoubtedly face layoffs and pressure to cut costs. Shortly after the company purchased Seattle ABC affiliate KOMO and Portland station KATU in 2013, it fired several of the stations’ employees. Local news and public affairs programming suffered as a result.
Sinclair’s relentless pursuit of profits has also led it to blur the line between advertising and news. After the company bought Washington DC station WJLA in 2014, WJLA’s morning news program began hyping Myrtle Beach, South Carolina as a tourist destination as part of a company-wide tourist promotion deal. And in 2016 dozens of Sinclair stations repeatedly ran commercials for the Hunstman Cancer Institute during local news without identifying the segments as paid content, a blatant violation of FCC regulations.
More disturbing than Sinclair’s commercialism and penchant for belt-tightening is the company’s habit of imposing a rightwing political slant on its station’s local newscasts.
The Washington Post in December reported that the company’s stations routinely gave “neutral or favorable coverage” to Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign while giving Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly negative coverage.
According to the New York Times, Sinclair forces local stations to air “must run” political commentaries from conservative pundits such as former Sinclair executive Mark Hyman and one time Trump aide Boris Epshteyn. These commentaries routinely bash social welfare spending, Democrats and liberal causes.
Sinclair has a long history of politically-motivated programming decisions. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the company ordered its Baltimore station to “read patriotic statements praising President Bush.” In 2004, Sinclair told its stations to air a film smearing presidential candidate John Kerry’s service in the Vietnam War, only to back off because of the ensuing controversy. On the eve of the 2012 election, the company compelled stations in battleground states like Ohio to run a half-hour “election special” loaded with partisan criticisms of President Obama. Among other things, the broadcast proclaimed that “the cost of Obamacare is making many Americans sick to their stomachs.”
Veteran reporter David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun has said Sinclair, “comes as close to classic propaganda as I think I’ve seen in thirty years of covering local television or national television.”
The handling of the Sinclair-Tribune merger by the FCC — now under the direction of Trump’s appointed chair, Ajit Pai — raises some serious questions about political favoritism and preferential treatment on the part of government regulators.
Since Pai took the reins at the FCC, the agency has made a number of decisions that directly benefited Sinclair. The agency reinstated an obscure rule – the “UHF” discount-- making it possible for Sinclair to own stations reaching a larger share of the national TV audience than would have been permitted previously. It also established an expedited timeline for review of the Tribune purchase.
What makes this pattern of favoritism so suspicious is that Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner has boasted publically that in the lead up to the election the Trump campaign “struck a deal” with Sinclair for better coverage. Following the election, Trump himself met with Sinclair Chairman David Smith to discuss FCC rule changes. And since becoming FCC chair, Pai has met several times with Sinclair officials.
As Craig Aaron of media reform group Free Press commented, “It sure looks like a quid pro quo.”
Fortunately, the FCC has been known to respond to public pressure. The agency has already received close to a thousand comments opposing Sinclair’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media. The Coalition to Save Local Media — a group of independent media companies, local cable distributors and civic organizations — is organizing to fight the merger.
Hopefully, these efforts will be successful. A bigger, more powerful Sinclair would be bad for the TV industry, bad for viewers and bad for democracy.
Steve Macek is professor and chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at North Central College in Naperville, IL.