Fox News might be President Trump’s most prominent propaganda arm in the media, but a deal proposed by the Sinclair Broadcast Group could change that. The FCC is currently mulling a $3.9 billion merger of Sinclair and Tribune Media, a move that would give the former company over 200 local TV stations and, in effect, a nation-wide monopoly over local news broadcasts. The proposal has been fiercely criticized from both the left and the right, not only because of how it would discourage competition in local markets, but because of Sinclair’s history of wielding editorial control over the stations it owns, regularly forcing local markets to broadcast content sympathetic to the Trump administration.
Last week, Sinclair distributed to its stations a “must run” segment focusing on the family separation crisis at the border. Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign adviser who currently serves as Sinclair’s political analyst, says in the clip: “Many members of the media and opponents of the president have seized on this issue to make it seem as if those who are tough on immigration are somehow monsters … Let’s be honest: While some of the concern is real, a lot of it is politically driven by the liberals in politics and the media.”
“Bottom Line With Boris” is a recurring segment that appears regularly on stations owned by Sinclair, which has aggressively championed conservative issues under the guise of journalism since the Bush administration. After 9/11, the company called on newscasters to speak glowingly of the “War on Terror.” At one point, it told its ABC affiliates to refrain from running an episode of Nightline that was perceived to be critical of President Bush.
Mainstream media grew wise to Sinclair’s strategy in April after Deadspin published a disturbing video that spliced together footage of dozens of Sinclair anchors reading from the same pro-Trump script.
The president quickly sprang to Sinclair’s defense:
The Fake News Networks, those that knowingly have a sick and biased AGENDA, are worried about the competition and quality of Sinclair Broadcast. The “Fakers” at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2018
If Sinclair were to merge with Tribune, its coverage would reach an estimated 72 percent of American households, many of them concentrated in battleground states. Though a host of regulatory restrictions and legal precedents would have stymied Sinclair from expanding its reach, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai – yes, the guy with the novelty coffee mug who axed net neutrality – has gone to such incredible lengths to hatchet away any regulatory brush in the way of the merger that the FCC’s inspector general launched an investigation to determine whether Pai has been operating on behalf of Sinclair. The FCC denies it has acted in the service of any specific company, but the New York Times reported last August that Pai has met with Sinclair on multiple occasions. Not long after one such meeting, Pai reinstated an archaic loophole increasing the number of stations Sinclair could own. A few weeks after that, the company announced its plan to buy Tribune.
The loophole, known as the UHF discount, was initially introduced decades ago in response to the limited reach of stations in certain markets. The discount allows broadcasters to count these markets as half of a normal market, meaning they can control an inflated number stations while still remaining under the market cap. Advancements in broadcasting technology have rendered the discount obsolete, and there is no legitimate reason for it to exist in 2018. Its reintroduction, along with other Sinclair-friendly regulatory maneuvers, were referenced in a comment arguing against the merger filed by the ACLU last week. The civil rights group is one of several organizations to have filed petitions opposing the merger, which the FCC is allowing up until July 12th.
“The biggest issue is the resulting size, but also the fact that the Sinclair merger would happen through this evasive tactic of reinstating a totally outdated, discredited rule that relies on technology that we no longer primarily use is one thing that is concerning here,” ACLU legal counsel Jacob Hutt told Rolling Stone. “It’s especially concerning that the FCC reinstated it around the time this deal was being proposed.”
So out of bounds was Pai’s reintroduction of the UHF discount that it is currently being challenged by a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to make a ruling later this summer. To pre-empt a decision, the FCC on July 12th will hold a vote on whether to increase the cap on the percentage of households a company is allowed to reach. If the vote passes, it would likely ensure the Sinclair-Tribune merger can take effect even if the court rules against the UHF loophole.
The merger would not only give Sinclair a monopoly, it would threaten Americans’ exposure to a diversity of viewpoints, which the ACLU argues is a First Amendment issue. “Since the 1940s we’ve had a position that the government also has a responsibility to keep private actors like Sinclair from restricting viewpoint diversity, both through taking over way too substantial of a portion of the market, but also through engaging in a kind of requirements that local stations under its ownership engage in idealogical punditry which they are not accustomed to doing,” says Hutt.
The “idealogical punditry” pushed by Sinclair is far more insidious than that of Fox News. Local news is supposed to be free of bias and aimed at serving the interests of the community, not the White House. Americans trust this is still the case, but Pai’s FCC is rolling back measures meant to protect the integrity of these stations. In addition to angling for a pro-Trump conglomerate to control an unprecedented percentage of the nation’s local news, Pai in October repealed the “main studio rule,” which held that broadcasters must have a studio where they’re broadcasting. Now, Sinclair is able to operate a network affiliate in, say, Iowa, entirely separate from their East Coast headquarters. If the merger goes through, it would expand and solidify the company’s stranglehold these increasingly not-so-local local newscasts.
“It’s easy to forget when you get most of your news by reading something online or on your phone that there is a significant portion of the country that not only primarily gets its news from TV, but also mostly from local news,” says Hutt. “There are ample studies showing that that is the main way most Americans are getting their news. It’s going to hit rural consumers, non-white consumers and low-income consumers especially hard. If this deal goes through, it’s going to have an adverse impact on parts of the population that are already struggling.”
If the FCC approves the merger as expected, groups like the ACLU could pursue legal recourse, but as is the case with net neutrality, it’s hard to make headway when interests of the people in power are indistinguishable from those whose influence they’re supposed to be checking.