As you can see from the graph below the majority of Americans still get their news from TV. And if you talk to registered voters, 41% will say they trust their local news as opposed to 27% who trust the national news. But what happens when news is no longer news but a propaganda tool of one political party or another? We may be about to find out.
Last month the FCC headed by Ajit Pai, eliminated certain regulations which resulted in a huge gift to one telecommunications company in particular-Sinclair Broadcast Group. Who are they and why should you care?
Sinclair Broadcast Group, headquartered in Hunt Valley, MD, was founded in 1971 by Julian Sinclair Smith and is now run by his family. His son David Smith currently serves as Executive Chairman. By number of stations and total coverage, Sinclair is the largest TV station in the U.S. The company owns and operates 193 stations (233 after pending sales are approved), which translates to 40% of all U.S. households.
Sinclair has been systematically buying up market share since the 1980s, but in March of this year reports began to surface that Sinclair was looking to acquire Chicago-based Tribune Media. Then in May, Sinclair announced it would acquire Tribune for $3.9 billion. Right now Sinclair only has an 11% overlap with Tribune, but if the acquisition is successful Sinclair’s reach within the top-ten viewing markets will expand dramatically. Stations would be added in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Cleveland (giving Sinclair at least one station in almost every Ohio market), and Philadelphia (WPHL-TV). Sinclair would also gain a national cable presence in WGN America and partial interests in the Food Network and This TV.
Other station owners have sought to thwart the acquisition of Tribune, arguing that it would give Sinclair unfair leverage with 21st Century Fox. The problem is Sinclair is already the largest Fox affiliate by station count. With Tribune Media being Fox’s largest affiliate operator by total market reach, the acquisition by Sinclair would create an entity that would reach three out of four American households.
When is she going to get to that “why should you care” part, you ask. If you expect your news to be factual and bias-free, then you should care. Sinclair has repeatedly been criticized for its conservative slant, even by some of its employees. In the past its stations have been known to air politically-motivated coverage and news specials that were favorable to the GOP in the time leading up to an election. Back in 2004, it was revealed that all of Sinclair’s campaign contributions went to Republican candidates. The Center for Public Integrity has also cited former Sinclair executive Mark Hyman for lobbying the FCC to loosen rules on concentration of media ownership. (This is the same Mark Hyman who once compared multi-culturalism and political correctness to a cancer epidemic.)
Here are some more of Sinclair’s claims to fame:
But what should really set your hair on fire is Sinclair’s hiring of Boris Ephsteyn in April as its chief political analyst. Yes-that Boris Ephsteyn-former senior advisor to Trump during the campaign and an assistant communications director in the Trump administration until March when he resigned.
Media advocacy groups like Free Press have been sounding the alarm particularly over Sinclair’s syndicated news content, charging that the group’s practices are weakening local media outlets, which as you could see in the Pew Research Center graph above, traditionally receive higher marks for trustworthiness. One of the most troubling of Sinclair’s practices is the use of “Must-Run segments”, which include pre-packaged news segments that are integrated into local news broadcasts. As PBS NewsHour’s William Brangham reports, “Sinclair mandates that these clearly conservative editorials and features get broadcast on every one of their local stations. In some cases, stations have to run them as often as nine times a week.” So much for local news run by local stations and produced and reported by local people! What viewers are actually getting are Trump surrogates like Boris Ephsteyn pontificating on conservative issues.
Comedian and political commentator John Oliver giving his take on Sinclair.
On October 19th, Tribune Media shareholders approved the acquisition deal. On October 24th, the FCC eliminated a rule that “required broadcast station groups to maintain a physical presence in the community of their primary local coverage areas”, thus assisting Sinclair in its ambitions, which leads me to the most troubling part of the story. Free Press has accused Sinclair of currying favor with the Trump administration. (Jared Kushner stated last December that there was a deal with Sinclair for access to the Trump Campaign in exchange for airing interviews without commentary. The Washington Post has shown that Sinclair gave more broadcast time to favorable coverage of the Trump campaign than to other candidates.) Sinclair executive chair David Smith is said to have had meetings with Ajit Pai prior to his appointment as FCC chair about deregulations that would be favorable to the media group.
The FCC has a five member panel led by Republican Chairman Pai. On November 16th the FCC voted on several actions that would eliminate regulations for local media ownership. The two Democratic commissioners voted against the deregulatory decisions. “We have engaged in a series of media policy changes at this agency that are striking in the one thing that they have in common,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “They are all custom-built for a company called Sinclair Broadcasting.”
A few days after the FCC vote, two high-ranking House Democrats asked the FCC’s inspector general to investigate whether Chairman Pai “has taken actions to improperly benefit Sinclair Broadcast Group.” Then on November 22nd, 15 Democratic senators—almost all with a Sinclair-owned or operated station in their state—asked for an investigation of whether Pai’s decisions were meant to benefit Sinclair. (Click here to view the letter.) Pai of course denies this, but the fate of the Sinclair-Tribune Media merger is in his hands with a decision coming in the new year.
In a country where one of the founding principles is freedom of the press, it’s disturbing to see our government making laws that are a direct negation of that promise. It leads one to ask-what is the intent? Hannah Arendt, in a 1974 interview that has an eerie relevance forty odd years later, may have given us the answer:
“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer… And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
Stations in PA currently owned by Sinclair
posted by Amy Levengood