Creating the nation's largest local TV station conglomerate—and raising the frightening prospect of a network that would rival Fox News—conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group announced Monday it will buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion.
Craig Aaron, president of the communications watchdog organization Free Press, called the deal "a scandal," while former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner and Common Cause adviser Michael Copps said it was both "expected and disappointing."
"Expected because the new FCC majority is foaming at the mouth to rubber stamp more massive media mergers," Copps explained, "and disappointing because Sinclair is not known for the best journalism in the land, to put it mildly. Our nation's civic dialogue suffers yet another blow with this merger."
The deal must still be approved by the Trump administration's FCC, which has "signaled its openness to media consolidation," CNN notes.
Indeed, the FCC recently voted to reinstate a technical loophole called the UHF discount, thereby allowing broadcast companies to exceed the limit on how much of a nationwide audience they can reach. At the time, Jessica J. González, Free Press deputy director and senior counsel, said the decision was favorable for Sinclair and other big broadcasters, and as the New York Times reported Monday, "[t]he change effectively lowered Sinclair's coverage of American households to about 25 percent, from a current limit of 39 percent, freeing it to pursue acquisitions."
Now, if the merger is approved, 42 Tribune stations would be added to the Sinclair empire of 173 TV stations, many of which are affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and the CW. As the LA Times wrote, the deal "would give Sinclair a presence in the top three TV markets, with KTLA in Los Angeles, WPIX in New York, and WGN in Chicago." Sinclair would also gain Tribune's ownership stakes in the Food Network and CareerBuilder.
The Baltimore Sun reports that the merger would give Sinclair ownership or control of TV stations in 72 percent of the United States.
[T]he deal means Sinclair's influence will now be felt in more than 100 markets across the country, many of them in swing states. And local news still has a huge impact: According to the Pew Research Center, citizens who are more inclined to vote in local elections are more likely to use and value local news, and local news is still an important source of information for voters in presidential elections.
"There has also been speculation that Sinclair, with the addition of Tribune's portfolio, could try to launch a rival to Fox News, though the company has not commented on the possibility," media critic Brian Stelter noted at CNN.
Already, the New York Times wrote last week, Sinclair has used its existing network of local stations "to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda since the presidency of George W. Bush."
The Times reported:
While much of the station's local news broadcasts are filled with local news, Sinclair also provides commentary and syndicated reports from its Washington bureau that have generally taken stances critical of Democrats and laudatory of Republicans.
Mark Hyman, a onetime Sinclair executive, has a twice-weekly segment on dozens of the group's stations, promising to take viewers "behind the headlines." What they find there are reliably conservative arguments on hotly contested political issues like voter identification laws, the Export-Import Bank, and overhauling the Internal Revenue Service.
[...] Before the 2004 presidential election, Sinclair drew sharp criticism, including from Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, for its refusal to broadcast an episode of "Nightline" devoted to reciting the names of every member of the military killed in action in Iraq.[...] Then, just days before the election, Sinclair aired parts of a documentary critical of the anti-Vietnam War activities of John Kerry, the Democratic nominee.
"More recently, Jared Kushner, [President Donald] Trump's son-in-law and now a senior adviser in the White House, said at a meeting with business executives that the Trump campaign had reached an agreement with Sinclair to give more access to Mr. Trump and the campaign under the condition that the interviews be broadcast without commentary on the company's affiliates, according to two people who had attended the meeting but were not authorized to discuss it," the Times added. "Taped in Sinclair’s Washington bureau, the interviews with Mr. Trump were broadcast across several swing states."
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The Washington Post further reported Monday that "[i]n the most recent campaign, [Washington, D.C. station] WJLA, and Sinclair stations around the country, gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to candidate Donald Trump compared with his rival, Hillary Clinton, according to internal documents supplied by people at WJLA."
The Post continued:
Among the stories that Sinclair's managers ordered stations to air were those questioning Clinton's handling of her controversial email server, the documents show. Another "must-run" report—about her health—included this internal description: "Why did Hillary Clinton struggle with disclosing her medical diagnosis? She has been repeatedly faced with previous questions of trust. Can a president lead with so many questions of transparency and trust?"
There were no equivalent "must-run" stories examining Trump's refusal to release his medical, draft or tax records, or the immigration records of his wife, Melania. But there were stories entitled "Donald Trump Reflections of 9/11," and a feature about women who were campaigning for Trump that included an interview with his daughter-in-law, Lara.
All this raises significant alarm for media watchdogs like Aaron, who said Monday: "Sure looks like a quid pro quo: friendly coverage and full employment for ex-Trump mouthpieces in exchange for a green light to get as big as Sinclair wants. I feel terrible for the local journalists who will be forced to set aside their news judgment to air Trump-administration talking points and reactionary commentaries from Sinclair's headquarters."
"This deal would have been DOA in any other administration," he said, "but the Trump FCC isn't just approving it; they're practically arranging it."