In Threat to Local News Nationwide, Trump DOJ Signals Support for Sinclair-Tribune Merger

A sign for the Sinclair Broadcast Group building is seen in a buisness district in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the owner of the largest chain of television stations in the nation, hopes to buy Tribune Media's 42 stations for $3.9 billion. (Photo: William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)

In Threat to Local News Nationwide, Trump DOJ Signals Support for Sinclair-Tribune Merger

The Wall Street Journal reports the Justice Department has told leaders at both companies that it would approve the proposal with the sale of about a dozen stations

Sinclair Broadcast Group has cleared another hurdle in its mission to buy Tribune Media, with Trump's Justice Department signaling its support for the proposed merger if the companies agree to sell about a dozen stations to avoid antitrust issues, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

"The department told the companies the deal as currently structured raises antitrust problems and that 12 to 13 station sales are necessary to alleviate concerns about competition in markets where a combined Sinclair-Tribune would otherwise have a commanding presence," people familiar with the matter told the Journal.

Although the sources declined to reveal the list of markets where stations would need to be sold, they said "it generally mirrors a list of overlapping markets Sinclair flagged in papers to the Federal Communications Commission," which includes "areas where Sinclair and Tribune each have stations that are in the top four locally, such as St. Louis and Salt Lake City."

Sinclair, the nation's largest television company, already owns 173 local stations across the country. With proposed $3.9 billion merger, the broadcaster would gain control over Tribune Media's 42 stations. While, as the Journal reports, "Sinclair has called the deal a transformational one that would create a leading national media platform and give it resources to launch a wireless platform for a streaming video service," consumer advocates are concerned the merger would give the right-wing Sinclair unfair influence over local news.

President and CEO Craig Aaron has called the proposal "a scandal" that would enable Sinclair to "air its cookie-cutter newscasts to nearly 70 percent of the country's population in local markets across the country."

Aaron's group has petitioned (pdf) the FCC to deny the merger, warning: "Sinclair's practice of forcing stations to promote an extreme conservative perspective and distort local news actively threatens the well-being of marginalized communities across the nation, specifically communities of color and immigrants. People of color disproportionately rely on broadcast news and thus will be disproportionately harmed by a reduction in localism, competition, and diversity."

The petition also notes concerns over "the appearance of a quid pro quo arrangement between the Trump administration and Sinclair." Trump-appointed FCC chief Ajit Pai's ties to Sinclair have raised concerns about perceived favoritism regarding the broadcaster's proposed merger and other pro-industry policies Pai has pushed for since becoming chairman.

Several moves by the FCC under Pai have been cast as "massive handouts" to Sinclair and the telecommunications industry. In April, the agency reinstated the obsolete UHF discount that, as Common Dreams reported, "essentially functions as a loophole allowing broadcast companies to exceed the FCC's limit on how much of a nationwide audience they can reach."

In October, the FCC abolished the "main studio rule," which required broadcasters to maintain studios within 25 miles of the communities where they were licensed to transmit signals. Last month, the agency rolled back media ownership regulations under the guise of trying "to modernize its broadcast ownership rules and to help promote ownership diversity." The changes to ownership rules are expected to help Sinclair move forward with the Tribune merger.

On Thursday, while the nation watches in horror as FCC dismantles net neutrality rules for internet service providers, agency commissioners are also considering whether to reexamine national audience rules that bar television broadcasters from reaching more than 39 percent of U.S. households.

Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that opposes the merger, told the Journal that if the FCC approves a Sinclair merger that enables the broadcaster to reach more than 39 percent of households "it violates an explicit limit set by Congress, and public interest groups will challenge the legality of the deal."

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