The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has made it substantially easier for media monopolies to dominate American cities by removing roadblocks to their consolidation.
The Republican-led FCC voted 3-2 Thursday to eliminate the 42-year-old ban prohibiting the same entity from owning multiple broadcast companies or combining broadcast and print businesses within the same market. The new, loosened regulations passed by the GOP majority now allow a single entity to own up to 2 of the top 4 stations in the city. Assuming this ruling goes unchallenged in the courts, it would mark the most significant change to media ownership regulations in a generation.
Many see the ruling as a means to ease a deal that would allow Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of local media, to grow even larger by acquiring Tribune Media, which currently owns 233 local stations and is the second largest owner of such stations. Acquiring Tribune could further extend Sinclair’s influence, a potential expansion only recently made possible by the Trump administration.
The company has been emboldened by the Trump administration’s easing of rules that had stymied its expansion. Last month, after lobbying from media companies, the FCC reinstated what is known as the “UHF discount.” While broadcasters are not permitted to cover more than 39 percent of American households, the UHF discount allows companies to exclude stations operating on ultrahigh frequencies from their calculations of station ownership. That move gives Sinclair plenty of breathing room to buy more stations.
If completed, the Tribune merger deal would significantly expand Sinclair’s footprint from mostly smaller markets to some of the country’s largest cities, including Chicago and New York, placing them in 72 percent of all US households.
“Today you’ve turned over our collective resource of the public broadcast airwaves to a company whose business model is built on tearing apart the fabric of communities by pushing racist fearmongering in the guise of news,” the media advocacy group Free Press wrote in an open letter to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer seeking to rollback net neutrality rules, further restricting the free press. “You granted Sinclair the ability to not simply broadcast this hate, but to maximize its already inflated profits by targeting its seeds of hate.”
Pai had already overseen the loosening of earlier restrictions, allowing Sinclair, which allegedly traded access for positive coverage with the Donald Trump 2016 presidential campaign, to broadcast more broadly than would have previously been allowed.
“You’ve removed the last barrier preventing one voice from monopolizing every aspect of news production in America’s smaller communities, ensuring future generations will remain ignorant of the corruption taking place around them,” the letter continued.
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.
Sinclair has received criticism for preempting local coverage for right-wing commentary from the likes of former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn. Last month, the company hired Epshteyn as its chief political analyst and on-air commentator. Groups like Media Matters have documented his misleading claims around healthcare reform.
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 discover there are reliably conservative arguments on hotly contested political issues like state voter identification laws, the Export-Import Bank and overhauling the Internal Revenue Service.
In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, Sinclair instructed anchors to read statements supporting President George W. Bush and his administration’s efforts to fight terrorism, The Baltimore Sun and others reported at the time.
Sinclair fired Randy Lubratich, an executive producer at station WWMT in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for tweeting unfavorably about billionaire GOP donor turned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. In Baltimore, the Maryland-based Sinclair has launched a “hyperlocal” investigative project—Project Baltimore—that looks for flaws in the public school system and often praises charter schools.
Fox 45, the local Sinclair station that runs the reports, has also been caught editing the chants of activists in an inaccurate and misleading fashion. In 2014, Tawanda Jones, the sister of Tyrone West, a man killed by Baltimore police, was leading a chant of “can’t stop, won’t stop, til killer cops are in cell blocks.” When the chant appeared on Fox 45, however, they cut off the end and doctored the footage to indicate that she was chanting that she would “kill a cop.”
The New York Times reported that Sinclair has “used its 173 television stations to advance a mostly right-leaning agenda since the presidency of George W. Bush,” and the Washington Post has shown that Sinclair “and its executives have been consistent financial contributors to Republican candidates.” Politico reported earlier this year that Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner “struck a deal with Sinclair Broadcast Group during the campaign to try and secure better media coverage,” without making the deal clear to viewers.
Baltimore Sun media columnist David Zurawik has called Sinclair’s Trump-favoring pre-emption “as close to classic propaganda as anything I have seen in broadcast television in the last 30 years.”
* Expanded from original article by Baynard Woods, published at The Real News.