Fresh from his inappropriate and possibly illegal appearance at CPAC over the weekend – where FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai was given the NRA Charleton Heston Award for forcing the repeal of net neutrality rules that were designed to make the Internet open to all – the arrogant Conservative is poised to push through the biggest, most openly partisan and arguably worst merger (for the American public) in broadcast history.
Sinclair already had 193 TV stations last May when it announced the acquisition of Tribune Broadcasting for $3.9 billion and the assumption of $2.7 billion in debt, which, when completed, would allow the company to reach an unprecedented 79 percent of all American TV homes.
Even more importantly, for the first time, Sinclair would reach into the largest U.S. broadcast markets including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, until recently a backwater broadcaster that operated primarily in small cities and rural America.
At a time when the Trump administration is blocking the acquisition of Time Warner – and its cable properties HBO and CNN – by AT&T, it might be reasonable to expect it would also be opposed to the Sinclair-Tribune hookup, which represents a far greater concentration of power and much greater anti-trust concerns.
Instead, under Trump and Pai, the FCC has bent over backwards to help make the Sinclair acquisition of Tribune possible.
In just over a year since Trump took office, the FCC has rewritten, reversed, or killed 75 years worth of carefully crafted rules designed to assure fairness, promote diversity, increase localism, and protect the public.
Trump’s sabotaging includes easing the rule that capped a company’s station ownership at 39 percent of the available TV homes; allowing one company to own two of the top four stations in a single market; ending rules requiring a station to have a studio in the market where it operates; and changing the way UHF and VHF stations are counted in terms of the ownership cap, among other things.
“Every element of our media policy is custom-built for the business plan of Sinclair Broadcasting,” Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the minority Democrats on the FCC told The Daily Beast, calling what is going on “shocking.”
“That is stunning,” continues Rosenworcel. “It is striking, and it looks like something’s wrong. And I’m not the only one who thinks that. We’re burning down the values of media policy in the agency in order to service this company.”
Some Democrats have been vocal in criticizing the Sinclair-Tribune deal, to the point that the FCC Inspector General is finally doing an investigation. In the Trump era, however, that is no assurance that anything will actually be done to correct the situation.
What is so special about Sinclair? In an expanding world of media choices for viewers where many broadcasters have followed the Fox News lead and become more partisan, Sinclair is has taken that formula to its extreme by pushing its conservative, Republican, alt-right worldview into an increasing number of local markets.
It was never more obvious than in the 2016 presidential election, when Sinclair went all in for Trump and slanted its local news and editorial coverage of him at every turn.
During the campaign, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, revealed a deal had been made with Sinclair to provide a series of exclusive interviews with candidate Trump, in return for which Sinclair promised to run each without any editing or any commentary.
After the election, Sinclair hired former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn as its “chief political analyst,” and now requires stations to run nine of his pro-Trump commentaries each week.
Trump is loyal if nothing else – as long as that loyalty is reciprocated, that is – and his help greasing the wheels for the Sinclair-Tribune deal is his payback.
Salon reported last year after the Tribune deal was announced that “a review of Sinclair’s reporting and internal documents shows a strong tilt toward Trump.”
“Sinclair gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Turm during the campaign, while often casting (Hillary) Clinton in an unfavorable light.” – Salon
Where local news was once valued, Sinclair represents a corporate approach that includes “must-run” reports, commentaries, and opinion pieces that each local station must run as part of its morning and evening newscasts.
What Trump, Pai, and Sinclair are doing turns the whole concept of why the FCC was created upside down.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the act that created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934, he designated it as an “independent” government agency because he saw its main purpose as a counterbalance to the growing power of large corporations and conglomerates.
“Roosevelt wanted to make sure the country’s budding mass communications systems did not fall into the hands of a select few,” writes AllGov.com in its history of the commission.
In 1940, the FCC issued the “Report on Chain Broadcasting,” which forced the breakup of NBC, because it had accumulated such a concentration of power in radio.
Under President Trump and Pai, the rules the FCC put in place over generations have in a little more than one year been undone to put unprecedented monopoly power into the hands of “a select few.”
Several factors make it possible for Sinclair to be the Frankenstein of broadcasters, put together in pieces to build an imposing monster with a dark future.
First was technology which makes powerful VHF stations (channels 2 through 13) and those on UHF (about channel 14) equal on the digital dial or on a cable or satellite system, as just another choice.
Then there was the determination of the founding family, which still controls the marginally public company. While others bought and sold stations, Sinclair has been unusually aggressive in its acquisitions, quickly reaching the longtime FCC limit of stations that reach a maximum of 39 percent of American TV homes.
Then, of course, there is what makes Trump love it: Sinclair makes no pretense to being fair, diverse, or open to all views. Rather, it is proudly conservative in its news, editorials and in its selection of programming.
Sinclair has already been called “the most dangerous company most Americans have never heard ofm” but that is just the beginning. Once it is in every big and small city, reaching an unprecedented number of viewers, there is no telling what impact this monster will ultimately have.
More from Salon:
“The merger would eviscerate the principles the FCC was created to uphold and defend – principles such as diversity of ownership to foster competition, diversity of viewpoints to foster public debate, and localism to foster service to the community.”
Even the FCC had to give Sinclair a slap on the wrist recently as both a penalty for their bad deeds and as a way for Pai to show he is not constantly favoring them. Sinclair was fined $13.4 million for running news stories on a cancer foundation without disclosing they were being paid to air the reports which were broadcast over 1,700 times, often as news stories.
Just how deeply Pai is connected to the FCC is also questionable. Shortly after the election, but before Pai was named Chairman (he already served as a Commissioner), he addressed a Sinclair “summit” that included all of the companies top executives, including the CEO.
Salon discovered through a Freedom of Information request that Pai held a subsequent second meeting with the Sinclair CEO and others the day before Trump’s inauguration.
“Money and influence,” wrote Salon, “the same old story. In a word, this deal stinks, and there’s nothing fair about it.”
Just as Pai jammed through the repeal of Net Neutrality, ignoring the critics and even government official protests, he will do his best to do the same for Sinclair.
There is a lot of media today on cable, the internet, and talk radio, but local TV remains a powerful force and a major source of news for many. The pending Sinclair-Tribune merger is a very big deal with frightening implications for our democracy and for the future of our country.
Trump will eventually be dumped, either by Mueller’s investigation or by voters in 2020, but once Sinclair closes this deal, it will be around to spread its poison for many years to come. That should worry all of us.