Sinclair Broadcast Group’s $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune Media, announced Monday, would have been impossible a few short months ago. The Federal Communications Commission’s clear intent to relax media ownership rules have facilitated a bonanza of rumored consolidations and mergers, empowering a small cabal of media tycoons to control the flow of news and information to shockingly large segments of the public. Sinclair/Tribune is only the beginning of a flood of deals we can expect in coming months.
Some might wrongly view the Sinclair purchase with a sigh of relief, because investment firm Blackstone and Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox assembled a competing bid last week. But Sinclair’s ascendancy is arguably worse for news consumers than even Fox pulling off the merger.
Sinclair, which already owns 173 television stations, mostly affiliates of major broadcast networks in small and mid-sized markets, may be familiar to liberals with a long memory. Back in 2004, Sinclair refused to broadcast on its ABC affiliates an episode of Nightline that read the names of war dead in Iraq. Then, Sinclair planned to pre-empt programming and air an anti–John Kerry documentary on all of its (at the time, 62) stations, without commercial interruption, two weeks before Election Day. After furious pushback from Democrats, and an activist campaign aimed at tanking Sinclair stock, the company compromised by running a portion of the documentary, produced by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, on about two-thirds of its stations, as part of a “broader discussion.” The final product, “A POW Story,” devoted over 30 minutes to Kerry’s Vietnam service and just four minutes to George W. Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard. Media Matters described the program as containing “factually false statements.”
Some critics are now concerned that Sinclair will use Tribune properties like “superstation” WGN America (which airs nationally in 80 million homes) to christen a new right-wing news network to challenge Fox News, perhaps even scooping up castoffs like Bill O’Reilly. That’s not my main concern; the local news stations Sinclair controls are already more impactful than an upstart cable news competitor will ever be. Sinclair has grown three-fold since 2004; even before the Tribune acquisition they ran stations in well over one-third of the country. Local news broadcasts may not register in Washington, but they remain one of the largest sources of information for Americans. And Sinclair continues to put its thumb on the scale.