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.
The company packages its own news segments that its affiliates, cash-constrained and starved for content, typically run. In 2014, The Washington Post reported that Sinclair habitually aired anti-Obama hit pieces in conjunction with right-wing think tanks. Sinclair executives routinely give to right-wing causes and candidates, and the news programming makes little effort to hide its political preferences.
In December, Politico reported that Jared Kushner struck a deal with Sinclair during the general election campaign for favorable media coverage of Donald Trump. In exchange for more access to campaign officials and the candidate himself, Sinclair ran the interviews without additional commentary, giving Trump an unfiltered pipeline into millions of homes. Sinclair Executive Chairman and former CEO David Smith appeared as a guest of honor in the Trump inaugural parade. Last month, former Trump surrogate and White House spokesman Boris Epshteyn joined Sinclair’s Washington bureau as its “chief political analyst.”
Now Sinclair adds 42 local stations to its roster, including in big cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington. This makes it the largest single owner of local television stations, reaching over 70 percent of US households. And Sinclair can thank Trump’s FCC for the opportunity, in a deal that looks suspiciously like a quid pro quo for all that slobbering coverage during the campaign.
The FCC has long limited any one owner from broadcasting to more than 39 percent of the national TV audience, or from owning more than two stations in the same market. But in April FCC Chair Ajit Pai restored something called the “UHF discount.” This allows owners to exclude half of its stations broadcasting on the UHF bandwidth from the audience cap. The FCC voted 2-1 to bring back the discount, and Sinclair’s ownership percentage “fell” from 39 to 25 percent overnight. The day after the vote, Sinclair announced the purchase of Bonten Media, which owns 14 stations in eight markets. They couldn’t have done it without the FCC rule.
Everyone assumes that Sinclair will have to divest some stations after the Tribune merger, to keep within the 39 percent cap. But Pai has signaled that he wants to loosen consolidation rules across the board, making the divestiture unlikely.
As a result, the industry is in the midst of a gold rush. CBS, Disney, Univision, and Comcast have all discussed purchasing more local stations. Every major broadcaster is positioning itself for future negotiations about carriage contracts and advertiser deals, with consolidation atop the agenda.
TV stations are far from the only entities in media looking to deal. AT&T and Time Warner already announced their deal, which would put channels like CNN and HBO in the telecom’s grasp; Pai said he wouldn’t even bother to review it. Verizon is sniffing around Dish Network (similar to AT&T’s ownership of DirecTV) and Charter Communications, which would further narrow the cable and satellite distribution for media. Sprint has eyed T-Mobile for a team-up that would reduce national wireless companies from four to three, at a time when more Americans stream video on their phones. T-Mobile, for its part, wants to align with a cable distributor. Comcast and Charter just inked a wireless partnership, which could lead to you paying one company for your Internet, television, landline phone and mobile service.
That’s a tremendous amount of power to put in the hands of a few conglomerates. With Pai’s expected loosening of net-neutrality rules, it sets telecoms up to throttle competing content, close off innovators who can’t afford the tolls, and lock in market dominance.
The local TV roll-up is occurring on a parallel track. Sinclair and its colleagues occupy one of the few media spaces out of the reach of cable and telecom gatekeepers—broadcast TV. But the goal is the same: to control the largest possible audience and muscle out competitors. And this ties in with Sinclair’s political project of providing slanted, subjective news and opinion to an unsuspecting public. When in power, the right-wing beneficiaries of these in-kind donations will relax media ownership rules to grow Sinclair’s empire even further, expanding its reach. Corporate-owned media has more fealty to its shareholders and executives than supplying diversity of opinion—just look at MSNBC’s counterintuitive lurch to the right while its more liberal voices garner the highest ratings.
This looks at first glance like an inexorable march toward a narrow media landscape tilted toward the right, with an eager partner in the White House and the FCC. But there may be one silver lining in the Sinclair deal. Prior to this, they’d been able to propagandize mostly under the radar. There’s simply less attention paid to local news in out-of-the-way markets. But Sinclair will now occupy prime dial space in the nation’s biggest cities. They’ll operate under a far bigger microscope. Activists will have to pay attention and call out the worst abuses that result from monopolizing the news.