Sinclair Deal Under Scrutiny
Sinclair Deal Under Scrutiny
Broadcasting Giant Wants Presence In Nearly Three-Fourths of US Households
The regulatory review of Sinclair Broadcasting’s $3.9 billion plan to acquire the Tribune Media Group is moving into a critical phase with today’s deadline for submission of comments on the merger to the Federal Communications Commission.
Sinclair is trying to buy 42 television stations, including outlets in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, from Tribune; the takeover would give Sinclair more than 200 stations with nearly 600 channels and a presence in nearly three-fourths of American households, far more than the FCC’s current 39 percent limit. Sinclair already is the nation’s largest broadcaster.
“No one company should have such power over the news and information that citizens must have to successfully practice the art of self-government,” said former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now serving as special adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. “And that doesn’t even get into the vices of this particular company.”
The merger plan is attracting a wide assortment of corporate and nonprofit opponents, including Common Cause. Their concerns range from Copps’ complaint that the merged company will dominate the flow of broadcast news and information in much of the country, to suggestions that Sinclair’s political spending and unabashed support for conservative Republicans is being repaid with favorable treatment from an FCC controlled by appointees of President Trump.
Sinclair stations are notorious among journalists for their use of “must run” segments dictated by the company’s Baltimore headquarters.
Politico reported last year that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, boasted that the Trump campaign had struck a deal with Sinclair for friendly coverage on its stations. In December, a review by the Washington Post concluded that Sinclair stations “gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign” while airing negative stories on Hillary Clinton.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai already has engineered the removal of one obstacle to the merger, reinstating a “UHF discount” policy the commission had jettisoned during the Obama administration. The discount changes the way the commission counts a company’s stations across the country, giving UHF stations a lower value than VHF outlets.
Under former chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee, the commission counted all stations equally, reasoning that digital technologies now give UHF and VHF stations equal range; before the digital revolution, UHF signals covered smaller geographic areas.
With the discount in place for counting purposes, the Sinclair-Tribune combination will penetrate more than the FCC’s limit of 39 percent of American households, forcing it to sell a few stations even as it dramatically increases its national reach.