Can Anyone Stop Trump's FCC From Approving a Conservative Local News Empire?

Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp, on May 4, 2017 in New York. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Can Anyone Stop Trump's FCC From Approving a Conservative Local News Empire?

Progressive media watchdog groups, Rupert Murdoch and conservative news outlets all want to stop a merger between Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media.

President Trump's Federal Communications Commission, under chairman Ajit Pai, has been clearing the way for a merger between Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media, two television companies that together own hundreds of local news stations.

Just months ago, this sort of merger would have been illegal. For years, FCC rules prevented any one owner of local news stations from reaching too many Americans, or from owning more than one station in a single community. But Pai, who spent the day before Trump's inauguration with Sinclair's CEO, has been moving quickly to clear these regulations away so that Sinclair can move forward with its plans to grow larger.

Media watchdog groups are pretty certain that Sinclair will use these relaxed rules to do exactly what the rules were intended to prevent: The company's new, nationwide network, they predict, will present a single viewpoint under the guise of local news.

Sinclair already does this, and has a long history of selective programming, including commentaries that, notably, are in line with Pai's own conservative, pro-corporate political leanings. In the last few months, some of these commentaries have been presented by Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump adviser and college friend of Eric Trump who, despite his new position as chief political analyst for Sinclair Broadcasting, remains close with the White House and has been questioned as part of the House of Representative's Russia probe.

After the $3.9 billion acquisition is complete, however, Sinclair will be America's largest television conglomerate. The company will own 230 stations and will be able to reach 72 percent of homes in America.

"There's no question the Trump regime is trying to fast-track this deal," Craig Aaron of the media watchdog group Free Press told "There's no way to look at it except as a favor for Sinclair. They have been the ones lobbying for this for years."

Rupert Murdoch has an opinion

However, the situation may soon become more complicated for Sinclair and its ally at the FCC. The company's competitors, such as DishTV, are speaking out. Perhaps more important to the Trump administration are other conservative news outlets, who, recognizing the threat that Sinclair could pose to their business, are taking a stand.

Newsmax, a conservative website, has filed a petition with the FCC opposing the merger. Its CEO, Chris Ruddy, is a close friend of President Trump, and is often tapped by television bookers to fill viewers in on the sorts of things that might be running through the president's mind. One America News Network and Glenn Beck's The Blaze, two other prominent voices within the constellation of conservative media, have also spoken out against the merger.

But the most prominent opponent of the merger is, perhaps, Rupert Murdoch, who owns Sinclair's most direct competitor, Fox, and who recently dined with Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner and Chief of Staff John Kelly. During the meeting, The New York Times reports, Murdoch unloaded on Steve Bannon. But, according to sources close to the president interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter, the president's relationship with Murdoch had hit a rough patch in July because of the Sinclair merger. (At one point, Murdoch had hoped to buy Tribune Media himself.) The White House dinner may have been an attempt to ease the friction between the president and the media mogul -- which means the issue of the Sinclair merger may have come up.

Full speed ahead?

So perhaps there is a chance that Trump's friends who own Sinclair's rivals will succeed, and delay the merger. Perhaps not. As this crony capitalist drama plays out, watchdog groups, meanwhile, are looking for holes in the Trump administration's approach. Trump's EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has stepped onto legally shaky ground in his deregulatory fervor; Craig Aaron of Free Press says Pai might be making a similar mistake. "This administration has been really sloppy in how it's carried out its policies. So whether it's this media ownership approach or it's their attack on the free and open internet, they aren't necessarily doing this in legally sustainable ways. In some cases it's hard to tell if they care," he said with a laugh. "They're scoring their political points."

But even if groups like Aaron's succeed in challenging Pai's policies through the courts, victory may not come until after the merger has gone through.

"Once they move down that road it can be pretty difficult to unwind, which is obviously a real shame," he said. "People are clamoring for better coverage of their communities. They want more local news. They want a diversity of opinions at the local level. They want to hear a variety of voices. Sinclair's model is the same conservative cookie cutter content wherever they go."

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