Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s recent purchase of Tribune Media is drawing serious concern from Tribune employees and their union leadership, as well as broadcasting experts who fear the company will continue its long history of aggressively slanting local news coverage to the right.
Sinclair, now the nation’s largest owner of local television stations, announced earlier this month it will acquire more than 42 stations from Tribune Media, which will make the company more politically powerful than ever.
The purchase includes stations in numerous markets in key swing states, and also includes three of the biggest independent news stations in the country in the three largest markets: WPIX in New York City, WGN in Chicago, and KTLA in Los Angeles. All three have strong news operations, while WGN also includes WGN America, a super cable station that serves many markets. (Some observers have speculated that Sinclair could try to turn WGN America into a Fox News competitor.)
Sinclair's well-established pattern of using its stations to boost Republicans politically was on display during the 2016 election, when the company reportedly cut a deal with the Trump campaign for increased access in exchange for more Trump-friendly coverage. (The recent Tribune purchase was made possible thanks to Trump’s FCC commissioner rolling back a regulation designed to prevent excessive media consolidation.)
Bob Daraio, a local representative for the NewsGuild of New York CWA Local 31003 -- which represents most WPIX writers and producers -- told Media Matters that Sinclair’s pattern of influencing coverage is worrisome to many of the union’s members.
“Sinclair is a very right-wing, conservative, almost alt-right in their political beliefs,” Daraio said. “This brings a concern about objectivity. The fewer companies that own media outlets, the less diversity in the point of view that viewers get to see.”
“Sinclair’s business model is going into a market, buying multiple stations, moving them all to one facility, and firing three quarters of the staff to get as much work with the fewest employees,” he added. “The concern about this media consolidation is it limits diversity. It also creates a barrier to entry into the business for smaller minority- and women-owned companies.”
David Twedell is a business representative in charge of broadcast for International Cinematographers Guild Local 600, which represents two Tribune Media stations slated for Sinclair takeovers: KTLA in Los Angeles and WJW in Cleveland
He said members are concerned about Sinclair’s past actions and how that might affect their work environment.
“Our employees are very nervous about the situation,” he said. “It is a combination of political influence and that Sinclair is extremely anti-union in dealing with its employees. What is it going to mean? It’s a concern and we will be scheduling a membership meeting to talk about it.”
Twedell knows Sinclair’s approach well as a representative for two current Sinclair stations, KATU in Portland and KOMO in Seattle.
Twedell has previously flagged concerns from union members about Sinclair’s practice of creating “must-run” videos with messages that the local stations are required to broadcast. As The Washington Post reported, in a “must-run” video from this March, Sinclair vice president for news Scott Livingston railed against members of the “national media” who “push their own personal bias,” and echoed Trump’s complaints about the mainstream media pushing “fake news stories.” (The New York Times did a larger look at Sinclair's use of conservative "must-run" commentaries last week, including a 2016 video "that suggested in part that voters should not support Hillary Clinton because the Democratic Party was historically pro-slavery.")
“It is a matter of supreme frustration amongst everyone in the newsroom,” Twedell told Media Matters. “When they have these must-runs dropped into the programming, it definitely affects the credibility of the product, and that is something our people are nervous about.”
Eric W. Chaudron, executive director of Chicago’s SAG-AFTRA local, which represents most WGN on-air employees, expressed concerns over excessive consolidation.
“We are watching the Sinclair/Tribune deal very closely. WGN TV is the flagship station of the Tribune Media Company, and it has always prided itself on locally focused news content. We are especially concerned that WGN TV continues to maintain its reputation as ‘Chicago’s Own’ station,” he said via email. “We have consistently expressed deep concern over the impact of deregulation and media consolidation on those who work in the industry. Moreover, we believe that professional broadcasters must always serve the public interest of maintaining a diversity of opinion and voices in the media.” Chaudron added, “We are encouraged by Sinclair’s statement that it plans to use the acquisition ‘to strengthen [its] commitment to serving local communities.’”
Broadcasting experts and veterans, meanwhile, offered their own concerns given Sinclair’s history and political agenda.
“They have an ideological position with news and they promote that in their local stations,” said Mark Effron, a clinical specialist in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University and a former WPIX vice president of news.
He cited Sinclair’s hiring of Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump campaign adviser, as an analyst last month.
“During the campaign they ran stories that decidedly had a pro-Trump bent to them,” Effron said. “Some of the stations they are taking over have a proud history of reporting. Not only will they be the largest chain in America, but there is a focus and an ideological bent to what they are doing locally. That gives me great concern.”
Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, a former TV Guide editor and BuzzMachine creator, called some of Sinclair’s past actions “overtly propaganda.”
“Yes, I worry about that,” he said in an interview. “In this case, when it is consolidated under a blatant or subtle ideological bent, I’m worried. It is influencing the world view of local reporting, how national agendas seep into local coverage; immigration, abortion, guns.”
Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member for broadcast and online at The Poynter Institute, pointed to Sinclair’s decision in 2004 not to air an episode of Nightline that included images and names of Americans who died in the Iraq War on its seven ABC affiliates. The move drew a harsh rebuke from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
“The Nightline episode was the flag in the ground, a really big shot that they are different. That’s a pretty big deal,” Tompkins said, later adding, “They do have some right-wing leanings, that’s for sure. … One of the telltale signs is if [Sinclair's conservative slant] shows up in the mid-term elections, that may be a chance for them to differentiate themselves.”
One veteran television reporter at a Tribune Media station who requested anonymity said, “Anytime you’re bought by somebody, you wonder, you worry about what’s coming. You’d rather have the devil you know versus the one you don’t. I’ve read the press clippings about their style, their bent in some markets.”
A journalist at a separate Tribune Media station said the company's conservative history is a "concern." "You know about them,” the person added.