The corporation that has been at the forefront of consolidating ownership of local television stations across the country, Sinclair Broadcast Group, has been promoting an initiative that has the company’s newscasters present what are referred to as “anchor delivered journalistic responsibility [messages].” The broadcast pronouncements from the corporation—which has established a long track record of aligning itself with right-wing political interests, and more recently with the Trump administration—echo the president’s ranting about national media outlets’ circulating “fake news stories.”
That’s caused plenty of controversy, and rightly so. But the burgeoning debate needs to focus more attention on the issues that explain why Sinclair has grown so influential—those of media consolidation and conglomeration, the homogenization of content and the death of localism—as well as Sinclair’s scheming to grow even more influential.
Last month, news anchors at local Sinclair stations across the country were told how to dress and how to comport themselves as they delivered a scripted messages attacking national journalists and news networks with an Orwellian claim: “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control ‘exactly what people think.’… This is extremely dangerous to a democracy.”
When media analysts called out Sinclair executives for telling anchors to mouth this doublespeak—CNN’s Brian Stelter referred to the Sinclair initiative as “a promotional campaign that sounds like pro-Trump propaganda”—the president delivered an enthusiastic defense of his echo-chamber network.
“So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” Trump tweeted. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
The mistake that many pundits and partisans will make is to imagine that the controversy regarding Sinclair has to do with conservatism versus liberalism, or Democrats versus Republicans. The problem is not so much with local stations’ taking positions on issues of consequence—as stations across the country have since the dawn of the modern media age taken stands on political matters, sometimes with “editorials” that are labeled as such, sometimes with comments from anchors. The real problem is with the amplification of that messaging by a media conglomerate that is now the largest owner and operator of local television stations nationwide—173 at last count—and that is angling to acquire many more stations.
Local television stations remain highly influential because their heavily promoted news programs—with their mix of headlines, sports reports, and lots and lots of weather coverage—still tend to earn high ratings. Those ratings mean that stations, even in small markets, are highly profitable. As such, locally owned and operated stations have the potential to survive and thrive, with solid news departments and deep connections to the communities and regions that they serve.
Unfortunately, as the Federal Communications Commission has relaxed its oversight of broadcast-media consolidation, the rules and processes that once encouraged local ownership and service to communities have been undermined. Sinclair has taken advantage of every opening to expand its reach, buying up more and more stations and taking more and more money out of local markets across the country. This has cut into competition, as well as the diversity of ownership of local media outlets.
It has also cut into the diversity of ideas and opinions that are expressed on local stations. Sinclair has frequently been accused of homogenizing content—by encouraging not just one-size-fits-all editorializing but one-size-fits-all news programming—in ways that break the link between local broadcasters and the communities those broadcasters are supposed to serve. It’s an awful cycle that diminishes quality and ultimately weakens trust in media outlets that, in many cases, built their following across many generations. Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, one of the few experts on media issues in Congress, refers to what Sinclair has been doing as “the corporate gaslighting of millions of Americans.”
That’s the right word for it. With their consolidation of ownership, and the dumbing down of newscasts, Sinclair’s very conservative and very bottom-line-oriented owners are undermining local television stations in communities nationwide, providing less content and more doublespeak from the corporate headquarters in Maryland. As the watchdog group Free Press notes: “[Sinclair] overrides the objections of local journalists and forces its stations to run daily conservative commentaries and biased stories on the local news—including features from the ‘Terrorism Alert Desk,’ which depicts all Muslims as terrorists.”
This is ugly stuff in and of itself. But what makes it even uglier is the fact that it comes from a company that constantly puts profiteering ahead of the public interest, and that is playing to the powerful interests that can enhance and extend that profiteering.
Sinclair wants to dramatically expand its empire by buying major stations owned by Tribune Media. The $3.9 billion Sinclair-Tribune deal is all about the consolidation of ownership—and influence—that federal regulators are supposed to guard against. But Trump’s FCC chair, Ajit Pai, stands accused of warping the approval process in Sinclair’s favor.
Pai’s machinations have been so concerning that the agency’s top internal watchdog launched an investigation into whether the chairman pushed to change media ownership rules to benefit the Sinclair-Tribune merger deal.
“Everything about the Sinclair-Tribune deal is offensive. Here we have a Trump appointee who’s dumping all consumer safeguards to enable Sinclair to reach more than 70 percent of the country with its racist views and Republican talking points,” argues Free Press. “If that weren’t enough, this deal is straight up against the law. It would violate a congressional mandate that says that one company can’t reach more than 39 percent of households nationwide.”
For more than a year, Markey and a group of media-savvy senators—Maria Cantwell of Washington, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Cory Booker of New Jersey—have been raising concerns about Sinclair’s proposal, and about the FCC chair’s approach to it. “We are concerned about the level of media concentration this merger creates, and its impact on the public interest,” the senators wrote in a June 2017, letter asking for Senate hearings on the deal. “In light of these concerns, we believe that Senate hearings would provide critical transparency for the many American consumers who will be impacted by the deal and greater accountability from the companies who must demonstrate that the deal serves the public interest.”
House Democrats have also called for hearings. The current controversy over the propagandistic pronouncements on Sinclair stations invites congressional scrutiny. But Republican leaders have checked out when it comes to holding Trump and his appointees to account. So this is a moment that requires a public outcry on behalf of diverse and competitive, community-focused and service-oriented local news. That outcry must, as a beginning, demand that Pai recuse himself from deliberations regarding the Sinclair-Tribune deal.
Free Press, a group that I’ve been involved with since its founding, is pushing for just that. So, too, is Common Cause, which warns: “Our democracy functions best when we have a strong, diverse, and independent local journalism. But runaway media consolidation threatens that, and takes power out of communities and puts it in the hands of a few corporate executives.”