On a 3 to 2 party line vote on Nov. 16, the Federal Communications Commission voted to eliminate a series of decades-old regulations that will now allow broadcasters to merge with newspapers in the same market and could permit companies to own two of the top four stations in a city. If they survive an expected court challenge and opposition by consumers, the rules will usher in a new era of concentration of media ownership that critics charge will harm the diversity of views heard on the air and read in print.
The major beneficiary of the FCC’s deregulation is Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., the conservative television corporation seeking to buy Tribune Media Company that owns 42 stations for $3.9 billion. If the Tribune Media merger goes forward, Sinclair would own a total of 223 TV stations serving 108 markets, including 39 of the top 50, which reach about 72 percent of all U.S. households. Sinclair, which already is the nation’s largest TV station group owner, has a reputation for forcing local stations to air conservative commentaries and runs stories with a right-wing bias on the local news.
Between The Line’s Scott Harris spoke with Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the media democracy group Free Press. Here, he discusses why he believes the recent FCC vote that removes limits on media ownership will harm the public interest and indications that the Trump administration may have struck a special deal with Sinclair to approve the merger in exchange for favorable political coverage. (Rush transcript.)
CRAIG AARON: It really is a scandalous set of activities being carried out by the Federal Communications Commission. There are long-standing rules on the books that haven’t changed at all since the early 2000s. And really, the majority of them have been held in place since the late 90s, and going back in some cases, back to the 1970s: limits put on how many television stations one company can own in a market. Just how big a footprint one company can have when it comes to local news.
And as we know, still the biggest sources for local news are those local broadcasters or daily newspapers, even in the Internet age, when it comes to who’s actually got reporters out there doing stories, looking at what’s happening in the community. It’s really dominated by these local outlets, and so the FCC has long had rules saying, “Hey, we can’t have more than one company owning too much media in one market and there’s going to be limits on how many TV stations – what the reach of those of those TV stations is, anyway – across the country as a whole. But ever since the Trump administration came in, they’ve been hammering away at these long-standing limits. And so, just last week, they actually voted really for the unfortunately sorely under-covered vote to get rid of a bunch of the rules all designed to benefit this company Sinclair. There’s no question about it.
Sinclair has been one of the companies that’s been pushing hardest to change these rules, that’s been coming up with ways to evade them. And now they’ve convinced the FCC to do away with the rules that are standing in their way, and in some cases, actually reinstate rules the Obama administration got rid of that were putting limits on how much they could own. So, it’s a situation where now there is nothing standing in the way of a single-television company like Sinclair outright owning two or three stations in a market no matter how small it is. They’ve changed the standard by which they would consider waivers among the top-rated stations, so you could own CBS and ABC or NBC and Fox. That had been prohibited. Now, they’ll look at them on a case-by-case basis.
They’ve also blessed these so-called side-car arrangements where a company essentially runs the news operations of one of the other stations. So now, you’re looking at a situation where one company could control maybe five or six television stations in a given market and start to set themselves up where you only really have one or two dominant voices. They also got rid of limits that said you couldn’t own the daily newspaper and the television station or radio station in the same market. It absolutely wiped that away.
And if you listen to what Sinclair and companies like it actually tell their investors, this is their vision. Very little competition. They want to be able to swap stations with other big chains, swallow up the middle-size chains, and basically dominate in any given community and region where you have only one company doing most of the news. And when it comes to Sinclair, they’ve managed to make it even worse, because Sinclair is a company that’s notorious for slipping conservative and right-wing propaganda into its newscasts.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Describe for our listeners the Sinclair TV operation – who owns it, and their political spin applied to local news coverage.
CRAIG AARON: Sure, Sinclair started out as a family-owned station in Baltimore that has rapidly expanded over the last several decades. The head of the company is a guy named David Smith. It’s still in his family, but now they already own more than 170 stations all across the country. If they get this deal done, they’ll own more than 230 stations, because they’re trying to take over Tribune, which owns television stations all across the country including in the biggest markets – bigger markets than Sinclair’s ever been in like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles.
But Sinclair is sort of notorious for pushing a right-wing or reactionary agenda. They make Fox News look moderate in terms of their political coverage. Now most of their broadcasts will look to you like any other newscast: Sports, weather and here’s that something that happened locally. They force all of their stations all across the country – no matter if it’s Seattle or San Antonio or Oklahoma City or Salt Lake City – they force them all to run conservative commentary.
There are no liberal commentators, no progressive commentators on Sinclair broadcasts but they force everybody to carry conservative commentary from people like Armstrong Williams who’s been on Ben Carson’s campaign, and a guy Boris Epstein who was a Donald Trump campaign spokesperson who was broadcast across Sinclair stations just about every day, out there to deliver conservative talking points. And they also slipped this sort of conservative slant into a lot of their newscasts. You might not get it on the local stories but they now run essentially a national news operation. Sinclair has been very friendly to the Trump administration. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law suggested that they had a deal with Sinclair for favorable and uncut coverage during the campaign. So now we have a network that essentially operates as Trump TV being offered huge, huge regulatory favors with billions of dollars with the FCC leading the way.
For more information, visit Free Press at freepress.net.