Gather around, everyone, and let me tell you a story about rules. And greed and hypocrisy.
Once upon a time in America, there was something called the Fairness Doctrine.
Approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1949, this rule insisted that because the airwaves belong to all of us, every TV and radio broadcast licensee must “devote a reasonable portion of broadcast time to the discussion and consideration of controversial issues of public importance,” and allow “the expression of contrasting viewpoints.”
Translation: When you present points of view from the right on your station, it behooves you to also present views from the left — and others — so that everyone’s opinion gets a fair shake.
That was the rule, but it didn’t sit well with conservatives and in 1987, during the latter part of the reign of Ronald Reagan, the Fairness Doctrine was revoked. The disappearance helped encourage the rise of right wing, hate talk radio and the incubator it provided for the likes of Fox News, Alex Jones and Breitbart.
Had the Fairness Doctrine remained in place, chances are the explosion of loud-mouthed bigotry on the air and across the internet might have been mitigated in part by a more balanced, countervailing progressive radio and TV to tell all sides of the story. But the Fairness Doctrine is gone for good; there’s little or no chance it ever will be reinstated.
That’s because, as we’ve seen, many rules are meant to be broken, especially if you’re part of a Republican Party that believes government rules should be stomped into the ground and eliminated. Rules keep corporate America from getting its way, from allowing it to run unfettered and unregulated, and must be abolished.
Sometimes there’s a government rule that the right wing actually likes. Sometimes, in fact, there’s even an old rule that you bring back; one that could do your big-business buddies some good.
That’s what happened recently when the FCC, now chaired by Republican Ajit Pai, decided to reinstate a rule that was eliminated by Pai’s predecessor. Turns out that it can come in very handy when helping friends achieve a merger that will create a powerful media behemoth dedicated to propagating a right-wing, pro-Trump worldview while raising consumer prices, eliminating independence and diversity and stifling community news coverage.
The Sinclair Broadcast Group, which already owns 173 TV stations in the United States, more than anyone else in the United States, proposes to buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion, making Sinclair even bigger. Although it claims to present a wide range of viewpoints in its news and public affairs coverage, Sinclair is a company that’s not shy about its conservative bias.
It is, in the words of former FCC commissioner Michael Copps, “the most dangerous company most American’s haven’t heard of . . . No one company should have such power over the news and information that citizens must have.”
The media activist group Allied Progress has published an exhaustive account of Sinclair’s political agenda, “its history of infecting local news coverage with politically charged programming.”
Just a few examples:
Following 9/11, NPR’s David Folkenflik reports:
Sinclair required the news and sports anchors and even weather forecasters to read editorial messages explicitly conveying full support for the Bush administration’s fight against terrorism. After some staffers raised objections at its flagship station in Baltimore, Sinclair officials allowed anchors there to say the message was from “station management.”
In 2004, Sinclair refused to allow its ABC affiliates to air an episode of "Nightline" that read out the names of every service member killed in Iraq, claiming that the broadcast was intended to hurt President George W. Bush. That same year, Sinclair announced plans to air a documentary called "Stolen Honor", attacking presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam War record.
According to Paul Farhi of The Washington Post:
After complaints from Democrats and calls for an advertiser boycott, Sinclair backed down and ran a program that analysts said was more balanced. The company nevertheless fired its Washington bureau chief after he publicly said that plans to air the anti-Kerry film were “indefensible.”
During the midterm elections of 2010, Sinclair distributed to its stations an infomercial paid for by the National Republican Trust PAC, that called President Obama a socialist and claimed he had raised campaign funds from Hamas. And during Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012, on the night before Election Day, a half-hour special, attacking Obamacare and other Obama policies, aired on Sinclair-owned stations in four battleground states.
Last year, The New York Times reported:
Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a senior adviser in the White House, said at a meeting with business executives that the Trump campaign had reached an agreement with Sinclair to give more access to Mr. Trump and the campaign under the condition that the interviews be broadcast without commentary on the company’s affiliates, according to two people who had attended the meeting but were not authorized to discuss it. Taped in Sinclair’s Washington bureau, the interviews with Mr. Trump were broadcast across several swing states.
Sinclair denies preferential treatment but Paul Farhi noted in late December:
A review of Sinclair’s reporting and internal documents shows a strong tilt toward Trump. Sinclair gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign while often casting [Hillary] Clinton in an unfavorable light.
The company is notorious for its “must-run” reports and commentaries — rightward-slanted segments and opinion pieces that stations are obliged to run in morning and evening newscasts. Earlier this year Sinclair hired former Trump spokesman and family crony Boris Epshteyn as its “chief political analyst.” Now stations “must run” nine of his “Bottom Line with Boris” commentaries each and every week.
Sinclair’s proposed merger with Tribune also has raised concerns that the company may be planning to start a Fox News-like conservative television network, possibly using Tribune’s WGN superstation in Chicago as command central.
In late July, Sinclair’s CEO Chris Ripley told Cynthia Littleton of Variety, “[W]e decided the world didn’t need another cable news platform,” but in August, Gabriel Sherman at Vanity Fair claimed that Sinclair’s Epshteyn has spoken with Breitbart about a possible alliance and quoted a Breitbart staffer: “All the Sinclair guys are super tight with Breitbart. Imagine if we got together Hannity and O’Reilly and started something?”
Throw into the mix newly returned Breitbart chief Steve Bannon, who in a post-White House exit interview said, “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons,” and you have the potential for a TV news organization more like Sweeney Todd than Edward R. Murrow.
That’s part of the reason so many progressive groups have expressed their opposition. But so have such conservative media outlets as Newsmax, whose founder Christopher Ruddy is a longtime Trump pal, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze and One America News Network. The complaints they’ve filed are an attempt to stall the sale. They talk about diversity and independence just as the media reform groups do, but it’s safe to say that what they really fear is the competition.
Their motives may not be pure, but they have a point. For not only would a larger Sinclair operation chip into the market for right-wing news, the proposed consolidation would further diminish media access already dominated by just a handful of players.
At Vice’s online magazine Motherboard, Sam Gustin wrote:
Critics of the merger say . . . the deal could actually harm the public by creating a massive, centrally-controlled local broadcasting juggernaut with immense market power to extract higher fees from cable and satellite providers, ultimately leading to higher prices for pay-TV consumers. Critics also warn that Sinclair could seek to eliminate ‘duplicative’ local news programming, leading to job losses and a reduction of media diversity at the local level.
And so, while many hardworking news organizations keep fighting to give us a clear-eyed view of what’s really happening in the world, the nation and our local communities — despite constant accusations from Trump and his acolytes of “fake news” — Sinclair seems to seek yet more tightening of our access to multiple viewpoints and straightforward reporting.
Finally, there’s this: Sinclair’s merger with Tribune would give them stations reaching 72 percent of the country. However, the FCC says that a single company, like the one that would be created after a Sinclair-Tribune merger, cannot exceed a reach of 39 percent.
That’s where the old rule I was talking about at the beginning of this piece comes in. It’s called the “UHF discount.”
UHF stands for ultra-high frequency. UHF television stations are the ones above the number 13 on your broadcast TV dial, those that in the days before digital TV, cable and satellite, required the fingertips of a safe cracker to properly tune in.
Because their signals were weak and they didn’t have the power of channels 2-13 in the very high frequency (VHF), if you owned a UHF station, its reach was only counted as the equivalent of half a station. The last FCC chair, Tom Wheeler, thought this was an antiquated rule for a digital age and rightly got rid of it.
But the new Republican FCC chair Ajit Pai suddenly brought it back this year and guess what? Sinclair owns a bunch of UHF stations, and if each is only counted as half, suddenly, Sinclair doesn‘t violate the 39 percent national reach restriction at all, even after it takes over the Tribune stations. How handy is that?
It helps to know people in moderately high places. The FCC and Pai say it isn’t true that the rule was reinstated specifically for Sinclair. “Still,” Politico noted in early August, “the FCC action removed the most serious obstacle for Sinclair . . . While Sinclair doesn’t spend much on traditional lobbying, it has donated generously over the years to congressional Republicans, who have shown little inclination to throw up any roadblocks to the deal . . .”
The broadcaster cultivated its ties with the FCC’s Pai in the weeks after Trump’s election, when the Republican commissioner was viewed as a top contender to lead the agency. Pai addressed Sinclair’s Nov. 16 general manager summit in Baltimore, where he also met with the company’s then-CEO, David Smith, according to a copy of Pai’s calendar obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Pai held a second meeting with Smith and newly named Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley in Arlington, Virginia, on the day before Trump’s inauguration, the records show.
Money and influence, the same old story. In a word, this deal stinks, and there’s nothing fair about it.