Fox News may have hit a rough patch, with both its CEO and top pundit felled by a storm of sexual harassment allegations within one short year. But another conservative media corporation — one with a name far less known, but that might soon be just as powerful — is poised to expand its reach into millions more American homes.
Sinclair Broadcast Group announced a deal this week to buy Tribune Media, the venerable newspaper-and-broadcasting company hit hard by the rise of the internet and the implosion of traditional journalistic media. Tribune Media spun off its newspapers — including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune — into a separate media company with the unfortunate name “tronc.” But Tribune still owns 42 television stations, some in the nation’s largest markets — cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. By buying Tribune, Sinclair will own more than 200 stations, and will be able to broadcast its conservative-leaning news to some 70 percent of the country.
While Sinclair’s television stations each produce their own local newscasts, they mix this coverage with reports and commentary produced by the company’s Washington bureau. For the last eight years, these had a distinctly anti-Obama bent — and are now markedly pro-Trump. For awhile, Fox was considering buying Tribune. The Sinclair acquisition is a different beast, but one that many worry could create an enormous new conservative network with local affiliates nationwide. The New York Times reports:
Some analysts and executives have speculated about whether Sinclair would repurpose the network to become a rival to Fox News, or possibly become a landing spot for conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly. When Fox News ousted Mr. O’Reilly amid allegations of sexual harassment, he did not have a noncompete clause in his separation agreement.
Moves like these undermine media independence
Media consolidation has concerned watchdog groups for decades. In 1983, journalist Ben Bagdikian published The Media Monopoly, a book that tracked the decline of daily newspapers and the rise of media conglomerates. By his count, America had one daily newspaper for every 35,000 Americans in 1900, but by 1980, the ratio had changed to one newspaper for every 130,000 Americans. The majority of daily newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations were owned by only 50 companies, Bagdikian wrote.
That trend has continued; today, most Americans’ print, radio and broadcast news is produced by only a handful of corporations. The internet has given birth to some exciting new independent journalism enterprises, but only 40 percent of Americans get news online — and, of those, many struggle to identify what news is trustworthy. Meanwhile, independent local newspapers have continued to die off as their centuries-old business models — based on subscription fees and advertising revenue — continue to shrivel as consumers turn to free alternatives. A recent survey be researchers at Ohio University published in the Columbia Journalism Review finds that some communities now only have one daily newspapers; others have none at all.
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Among these communities, television news — and in particular, local television news — is a lifeline. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 57 percent of Americans get their news from television, and of those, only 30 percent watch cable channels like CNN and Fox; the rest are watching the major networks and their local affiliates. These viewers, already starved of independent news, might find their local coverage becoming increasingly politicized.
At times, the company’s support for conservative politicians has gone beyond dishing out favorable coverage. After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Sinclair required anchors to read an on-air statement saying they supported the Bush administration’s efforts to fight terrorism. In 2004, the company refused to air a Nightline episode reading the names of those who had died in Iraq, claiming it was too anti-war. Later that same year, the company ran excerpts from an anti-Kerry documentary produced by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a conservative group, two weeks before the election.
The company was friendly to Trump as well. Jared Kushner, for instance, claimed he cut a deal with Sinclair to give the company greater access to his father-in-law’s inner circle in return for favorable coverage. (Sinclair disputes this.) Following the election, Sinclair hired Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump spokesperson who exited that job quietly after getting into a spat with a Fox News booker.
The Trump administration returns the favor
The Trump administration has been kind to Sinclair as well. Until earlier this year, Federal Communications Commission regulations prevented media companies from owning more than one station in single television market, and capped the size of a single company’s viewership at no more than 39 percent of the national TV audience. These rules restricted Sinclair’s size.
Days after Donald Trump’s surprise Electoral College victory, however, Republican FCC Commission Ajit Pai was at a conference with Sinclair’s executives, Bloomberg Politics
reports. The executives apparently left that meeting feeling optimistic: In a February call with investors, Sinclair’s CEO said, “We do expect this new FCC to tackle the ownership rules. We’re very optimistic about this new FCC and the leadership of Ajit Pai.”
On March 23, Pai outlined his intention to relax media consolidation rules. “There are synergies that are possible that our rules need to make sure we don’t prohibit pre-emptively,” he said. And this week, Sinclair announced its deal with Tribune — a deal that wouldn’t have been possible earlier this year — is moving forward.
“This deal would have been DOA in any other admin, but the Trump FCC isn’t just approving it; they’re practically arranging it,” Craig Aaron, head of the consumer advocacy group Free Press, told CNN’s Brian Stelter.
Aaron told us that Free Press — which is neck-deep in the fight to preserve net neutrality — is also ramping up a campaign to oppose Sinclair’s plan to buy Tribune, which has to be approved by both the FCC and anti-trust regulators. He hopes voters put pressure on their members of Congress to do the same — legislators can, in turn, put pressure on the FCC.