Media Merger Madness: Why the Marriage of Sinclair and Tribune Is a Credible Threat to Our Democracy [OPINION]

By Francella Ochillo May 22, 2018

If it succeeds, the proposed merger between Sinclair Broadcasting and Tribune Media could change dinner-table conversations across the country. Harkening back to a time when a few broadcasters controlled the airwaves, this merger would give one entity direct access to over 70 million Americans who still rely on free television and local news as a primary resource.

When we are constantly bombarded with stories about corrupt cabinet officials, felony indictments, abuse of taxpayer dollars and a total disregard for the rule of law, it is hard to appreciate the significance of this merger. Lawmakers have repeatedly asked regulators to explain how it would serve the public’s interest. They are also concerned that this deal will result in higher prices for consumers.

If approved by antitrust regulators, the Sinclair merger would create the largest broadcast company in history. Here are the staggering statistics: Sinclair would own or operate 215 stations in 102 markets, giving the company a broadcast presence in 72 percent of U.S. households.

Considering Sinclair’s history of acquiring local stations and centralizing news operations, the new broadcast behemoth would be able to determine which community efforts receive media attention, harden political viewpoints and define what constitutes a terrorist threat—all from its Maryland headquarters. Couple that unprecedented market power with Sinclair’s standard operating procedure to feature stories through a conservative lens, and the proposed merger is a direct threat to journalistic integrity and promises to widen the chasms of partisanship even deeper.

For example, at the height of the Iraq war, Sinclair ordered its ABC affiliates to pre-empt a special “Nightline” episode because the host, Ted Koppel, planned to read the names of over 700 U.S. soldiers who died during the invasion. Leading up to the 2010 midterm elections, Sinclair ordered its stations to run a documentary that was highly critical of President Barack Obama and carried the message that electing Republicans would be the only way to save America from the Kenyan-born, Muslim-terrorist sleeper agent.

That is Sinclair’s modus operandi–using its nationwide reach for political gain. In April 2018, its tactics were exposed when news anchors across the country were caught reciting conservative talking points in a must-run segment. In December 2017, the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) levied a $13 million fine for running over 1,700 commercials that Sinclair designed to look like independent news broadcasts without disclosing that that the programming was actually sponsored content.

The FCC has defended extraordinary efforts to relax media diversity rules in favor of the Sinclair merger, a deal that would also violate the 39 percent ownership cap set by Congress. In 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai successfully pushed to change agency rules to allow television broadcasters to increase the number of stations that they own. Soon thereafter, the FCC reinstated the obsolete UHF discount which allows broadcasters to discount the calculation of its audience reach.

It strains credulity that the FCC’s efforts to contort media diversity rules are all aimed at serving public interest. Instead, the sequence of events has cast a shadow over dealings with Sinclair, which are rightly being investigated by independent government watchdogs.

As the Republican-dominated FCC carefully positions itself to award one news organization with access into nearly 3/4 of U.S. households, Sinclair’s new divestiture plan to sell off 23 stations does not offer any comfort. For instance, selling 11 stations to Fox will not prevent Sinclair from controlling a nationwide narrative when the FCC allows them to use shared sales or joint servicing agreements after ownership is transferred. Likewise, it is unclear what type of repurchase options that Sinclair will retain if it sells to longtime associate and conservative commentator, Armstrong Williams, and former head of Media General, Soo Kim. Divesting to Williams and Kim was not only an effort to meet divestiture requirements but also intended to assuage racial diversity concerns. Again, that is of little consequence when Sinclair will likely maintain control of many of those stations as well.

The truth is that if we believe in free speech, then we should also agree that news organizations that stoke partisan flames, deal in hyperbolic conspiracies and stand in opposition to any policy or person that does not fit the conservative mold should have a platform. However, when the lines between fact and opinion blur to the extent that the truth becomes unrecognizable, a lopsided broadcast is a disservice to those who rely on their content as the primary source for news.

Not everyone has the option to change the channel. In several markets where Sinclair owns stations, no other local news options exist. At a time when deception is normalized and fact-checking is optional, having only one source for local news reinforces our biases and ultimately chips away at our democratic ideals.

A healthy republic requires a multitude of voices and the American people need more options, not fewer. We need varying viewpoints. We need differing opinions. We need more sources of information, not less. Giving Sinclair a controlling share of the market at Americans’ expense will not help us achieve that goal. It endangers democracy.

Francella Ochillo is the Director of Government & Legal Affairs for the National Hispanic Media Coalition.