How a quiet right-wing TV behemoth just got super-sized, thanks to Trump
One of the most dominant and far-reaching media companies in U.S. history just got even bigger, and there’s a chance it could affect the way huge swaths of people get news — but there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it.
This is why.
Sinclair Broadcasting just acquired Tribune Media Company for $3.9 billion (plus $2.7 billion in debt). The deal means that Sinclair now owns more than one-third of all local TV stations in the U.S., a dominance rarely seen before — because it was illegal.
Illegal? Owning TV stations?
Yup! The U.S government’s chief media regulator (the Federal Communications Commission) previously had rules in place preventing any one company from owning too many local TV stations. And those rules were thrown out the window in April under the leadership of Ajit Pai, the FCC’s new Donald Trump-appointed chairman. He’s been leading the repeal of various FCC regulations, including rules that prevented internet service providers from collecting data on users (he’s also the guy leading ongoing efforts to roll back net neutrality).
In short, Pai’s FCC gave a loophole back to companies like Sinclair that allowed conglomerates to exceed a Congressionally mandated limit on how much of the country their TV stations could. That essentially fired a starting gun for the race toward consolidation.
Sinclair wasted no time in taking advantage of the deregulation. Tribune Media (which was split off from its declining newspaper business in 2014) owns TV stations in many major markets, most notably WGN in Chicago. The company claimed a reach of 50 million U.S. homes. Now, they’re going to be part of Sinclair.
This doesn’t sound… great?
There are plenty of competition concerns about Sinclair’s size—the combined company gives it more leverage to negotiate lucrative deals with broadcast networks like Fox, which pay to have their content carried by the local channels—but that’s not what had the media world talking on Monday. Instead, the focus is on Sinclair’s political leanings, most specifically, its relationship with the Trump administration.
OK, so what’s the deal with Sinclair?
Sinclair is owned by the Smith family, well known in political circles as staunch conservatives. Its network of channels have been viewed by some in the media industry as a rival to Fox News, though Sinclair has a far lower profile. Consumers don’t tend to know who owns their local FOX, NBC, ABC, or CBS affiliates, meaning Sinclair operates almost entirely in the background.
Sinclair’s conservative leanings go back years, with many of their stories centering on the presidential race between George W. Bush and John Kerry. The most high-profile example came in 2004 when Sinclair fired a Washington, D.C. bureau chief for speaking out about the company’s plans to air an hour-long special on 60 stations alleging that Kerry’s testimony against the Vietnam War led to more prisoners of war being tortured. The bureau chief called the programming “biased political propaganda, with clear intentions to sway this election.”
The Sinclair Network will make Fox News Channel look moderate.
— Jack Shafer (@jackshafer) May 8, 2017
Also in that election cycle, the FCC fined Sinclair $36,000 after it was revealed that one Sinclair commentator received money from the Bush administration to push a certain education policy agenda. The commentator ended up staying with Sinclair even after the payments were revealed publicly.
More recently, Sinclair drew ire in December when Politico reported that Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner told people a deal had been struck with Sinclair for more access to the Trump campaign. It was widely viewed as an important alliance between part of the conservative establishment and Trump.
These days, Sinclair’s chief political analyst is former Trump campaign spokesperson Boris Epshten.
How worried should we be?
Of course, plenty of large, influential companies have had politically active owners, with those politics often trickling down into the end products. (Rupert Murdoch’s media empire: prime example.) It happens on the right and the left, and it’s common outside the U.S. And there’s not much that the government can do to stop that. Companies have free speech rights just like people do (oh hey Citizens United), and there are no rules that say the news is required to be objective.
But this, of course, is partly why regulations on media ownership exist, particularly for local channels. Local TV remains a major news source, particularly for older Americans. Having one company own huge portions of the market means limiting the diversity in views consumed by those people.
Even more problematic is Sinclair’s relatively low profile. Sinclair networks are pumped into the homes of tens of millions of Americans through local channels they tend to trust — or at least not associate with a right-leaning media conglomerate.
Pew shows huge swath of public relies on local tv for political coverage. And it’s big $$$ thanks to campaign ads. Who owns what matters.
— David Folkenflik (@davidfolkenflik) May 8, 2017
Sinclair’s move also highlights how important ownership regulations can be. Conservative voices inside and outside the U.S. government have bemoaned FCC regulations—most notably net neutrality— as being overly harsh and not actually addressing a problem. These are rules for the sake of having rules, they tend to argue.
Well, it would seem these particular rules are rather important, considering just how fast companies began circling Tribune as an acquisition target. A boom in consolidation of TV companies has been going on for years already. It’s poised to continue now that the ownership caps have been reduced.
So, what can we do?
Stay informed. Pai has said the FCC is going to review TV ownership rules again. With his track record, it’s reasonable to expect that regulations including ownership caps could be eased even more.
Sinclair might be the biggest threat, but it’s not the only one. 21st Century Fox, also known for its conservative leanings, was also reportedly in the market for Tribune. Since Sinclair beat them out, they’ll have eyes on other acquisition targets such as TEGNA, which spun off from newspaper publisher Gannett.
Sinclair may yet get bigger, spreading its right-leaning message even farther. But with the rules of the regulation game changing across the industry, it’s important that we stay as informed as possible, whether we’re watching the local news or not.
And, hey, maybe subscribe to your local newspaper rather than rely on the local broadcast—or do both.