By Don Corrigan
Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s plan to buy Chicago-based Tribune Media Co. for $3.9 billion has come under fire and there’s no shortage of local and national critics.
Criticism is also being directed at the FCC, which will violate its own rules for reining in monopoly media growth if commissioners seal the deal for Sinclair. In the St. Louis market, KDNL (Channel 30) is now owned by Sinclair and the purchase of Tribune would add KTVI (Channel 2) and KPLR (Channel 11) to its media stable.
On the national level, Sinclair’s plan would provide it with 233 television stations reaching 72 percent of American households. While the FCC has rules allowing a single company to reach no more than 39 percent of the nation’s households, the FCC is cutting corners with a “UHF discount.” This permits stations broadcasting on higher UHF frequencies to count only one-half their audience against the previous cap of 39 percent.
Opponents of the FCC action argue that the Trump FCC is disposed to bend the rules as a payback for Sinclair’s unflinching support of candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 election. They note that Sinclair provided its affiliates with admiring coverage of Republican Trump and critical coverage of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Among the national critics of the Sinclair takeover of Tribune are industry rivals such as cable companies, T-Mobile USA, American Cable Association and Dish Network LLC.
The American Television Alliance issued a statement noting that the FCC “giving Sinclair a pass on local ownership limits in cities like Seattle, St. Louis and Oklahoma City would all but guarantee more blackouts and higher prices for consumers in those markets.”
Dish Network followed suit with its own statement noting that “Sinclair’s pattern and practice have become a matter of record: buy a station, cut the local staff, move resources and decision-making to corporate headquarters, and let localism suffer… Sinclair’s recent earnings remove any lingering doubt over whether that pattern and practice will somehow abate with this acquisition.”
Industry opponents of the buyout also note that in markets such as Seattle, St. Louis, Portland, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, the new arrangement would give Sinclair an unfair advantage in courting advertisers. It could offer local advertisers discounted “multi-station buys” while punishing advertisers who place their messages with a local TV rival.
As media industry opponents focus on monopoly practices, other critics are upset by an expansion of Sinclair with its propensity to use biased and fake news. Among these national critics are Common Cause, United Church of Christ, Free Press and well-known pundits and comedians from Robert Reed at the Chicago Tribune to John Oliver at HBO.
According to Free Press, liberal media watchdog, “Sinclair’s practice of forcing stations to promote an extreme conservative perspective and distorts local news actively threatens the well-being of marginalized communities across the nation, specifically communities of color and immigrants.”
Free Press added that the appearance of a quid pro quo arrangement between the Trump administration and Sinclair also raises concerns Sinclair is trading positive coverage for regulatory favors. While Sinclair is welcome to an editorial viewpoint, it is not entitled to distort news coverage to those ends, or to extract tailor-made changes to FCC rules, according to Free Press.
Comedian John Oliver demolished the Sinclair deal and its news practices in a recent 19-minute segment of “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver took aim at a little-known company coming up with $4 billion to buy television outlets to politicize them, like FOX News. Oliver showed several examples of typical Sinclair broadcasts, which lean “noticeably conservative” and which are often conspiratorial in nature.
“If the opinions were confined to just the commentary or the ad breaks, that would be one thing,” said Oliver. “But Sinclair can sometimes dictate the content of your local newscasts as well, and in contrast to FOX News, a conservative outlet where you basically know what you’re getting, with Sinclair, they’re injecting FOX-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors, the two people who you know, and who you trust… You may not realize it’s happening,” Oliver warned, “because Sinclair and its digital news subsidiary, Circa, not only produce and send packages to their stations; they even write scripts that local anchors use to introduce the pieces.”
Oliver then showed local anchor after local anchor, across the country, using the exact same words to introduce a story about Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Although Flynn is one of the Trump associates caught up in the so-called “Russian collusion probe,” the Sinclair piece made it look as if he were the victim of a “personal vendetta” by a misguided FBI.
Oliver asked: Why is this being carried on local news? Why is the content so biased? Why is there no context about Flynn’s activities with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign?
St. Louis County media activist Tom Flanagan said he fears no one is paying attention to what is about to happen in the Gateway City’s media market. He said clergy, unions and progressives need to raise their voices against a right-wing media machine that will come to dwarf the influence of FOX Cable News.
“I don’t think many in St. Louis are aware it’s happening,” said Flanagan. “There are so many attacks on rules and regulations which protect people and the environment now, it is just hard to keep up with it all.
“It is also happening so often that I see a feeling of apathy on issues like who controls the news media,” added Flanagan. “Issues of the day that seem to be more intensely felt are social ones like immigration, persecution of Muslims, race relations, LGBTQ discrimination and health-care coverage.”
Flanagan pointed out that fairness in reporting on any and all of these issues would be compromised by a Sinclair takeover with three of its 233 TV stations owned in St. Louis. This is why media ownership constitutes a sort of umbrella issue that all progressives should be concerned about, Flanagan said.
St. Louis area native Jeffrey Blevins, who now heads the journalism department at the University of Cincinnati, noted that Sinclair is known to be heavy-handed in its selection of news content, telling stations that certain segments (with a rightward bent) are “must runs” which takes the editorial decisions out of the hands of local station managers.
“Essentially, Sinclair promises to be a localized, and more insidious form of Fox Cable News after its acquisition of Tribune,” according to Blevins, and he added: “Consider the impact that Clear Channel had on radio broadcasting after it began gobbling up stations and replacing locally-produced public affairs programming with syndicated conservative talk shows, such as Rush Limbaugh.”
The issue of media monopoly in St. Louis and nationwide has long been a concern of Jessica Brown, founder of the Gateway Media Literacy Partners. She has taught media literacy at the university level for 14 years. She said the Sinclair takeover will result in fewer opportunities to bring new voices and diversity to television in the metro St. Louis market.
“Media literacy is a survival skill; a skill essential to the survival of democracy,” said Brown. “People need to study and to act. People underestimate the power of one, and the power of constant communication with station managers, producers, reporters. Speak up about missing voices in stories; or misinformation in news broadcasts.
“Get in touch with advertisers as well,” said Brown. “A good advertiser boycott campaign can work, especially via social media. I believe we need to talk to a variety of stakeholders: our neighbors; the groups we belong to; our local, state and national political representatives. Demand that our media environment remains open to the public and that a local community’s myriad voices be heard. And, we also need to support alternative media.”