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Janine Jackson: Sinclair Broadcasting Group is already the largest owner of television stations around the country, with some 173. But it’s looking to increase that dominance by taking over Tribune Media, which owns stations in key markets like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The deal would mean Sinclair would own more than 220 stations, reaching some 72 percent of US TV households.
Time was, a single company controlling so much would raise alarms by itself, especially in a society that claims to value competition. But now critics like Jack Shafer say that complaints about super-concentrated media ownership “reek of stupidity” because, after all, there’s Netflix and Hulu and Amazon.
No matter that vast numbers of Americans rely on local news as the primary way of learning about the world, or that the existence of multiple sectors is a not an argument for a lack of diversity in one sector. It’s as if to say, it’s OK that school textbooks are biased — because, after all, there are cookbooks and comic books too.
But if any company dominating the country’s local news would be worrisome, those worries are compounded when it comes to Sinclair, because of that company’s pronounced ideological bent, their track record, and the means by which they appear to be getting their way. Here to fill us in on the situation is Craig Aaron. He’s president of the group Free Press. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Craig Aaron.
Craig Aaron: Thanks for having me back.
Perhaps before we talk about Sinclair becoming more powerful, we talk about what they’ve done with the power they already have. What should we know about this company?
I think what you need to know about Sinclair is this is, first of all, a huge company. They already own more individual local television stations than any other company in the country. They’re already at the supposed national cap for how many stations one company should be allowed to own. But Sinclair, in particular, has used their network to both push cookie-cutter content, but that content with a very, very conservative slant. This is a company with a very strong ideological agenda, and they push, to all of their affiliates, a series of conservative commentators who are must-runs for all those stations. They have to put them on the air.
And they have a long history of using their media power to push a conservative agenda, and especially a Republican Party agenda. You know, this goes back at least as far as their decision to run the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth video, that was an attack, essentially, a feature-length attack ad on John Kerry, when he was running for president. And there are numerous instances since then where they have used the public airwaves to push a very, very partisan agenda.
Yeah, the familiar argument from some quarters is that Sinclair’s in-your-face right-wing views actually represent an influx of diversity in media. That relies on a rarely examined assumption that all other media represent an equally staunch liberalism that needs countering. And then a never-explained assumption that liberalism means, you know, believing Muslims or gay people have human rights. Shafer actually offers, as an example of the kind of “unique viewpoint” that deserves amplification, the fact that Sinclair made its ABC affiliates cancel Nightline when that show named the US servicepeople killed in the Iraq War.
So we aren’t talking about stations having roundtables in which conservatives have a voice. We’re hearing, as you intimate, about folks who are watching the local news that they watched for years, and then — what’s that? Suddenly you’re watching something called the Terrorism Alert Desk, and it’s talking about how France might ban Muslim women’s bathing suits?
Right, exactly. This is what they’ve specialized in, is this kind of fear-mongering coverage: Here come the graphics announcing “Terrorism Alert Desk,” but then, strangely, the stories are just about Muslims, as if those were the same thing. This is a station that’s been caught doctoring audio to make it sound like anti-police brutality protesters were chanting “kill a cop” when they were chanting, “put killer cops in jail.” There’s so many of these instances that have happened on Sinclair stations that they aren’t anomalies.
They are only offering one hard-right slant in their commentary, which they mix in, of course, with your normal traffic and weather and car crashes and local government stories. But anytime it comes to covering national politics, national news, they are putting a very hard slant on that. Might be your local anchor sometimes reading the lead-in to a script, but very often, you’re getting centrally produced political programming pushing an agenda.
And moreover, I think to Jack Shafer’s points, what I always recommend when you look at what these companies are doing is you look at what they actually tell their investors. And what Sinclair is saying is not, hey, look, we’re going out there to offer an alternative viewpoint. What they’re saying is, we’re going to try to take over as much local news as we can.
And they’re aggressively pursuing an agenda, not only to reach the more than 70 percent of the country they’ll get if this deal goes through, but then to begin swapping and trading stations at the local level, so that they can operate two, three, four stations in a given market, benefit from all that shared backend and domination of advertising, to actually push the same content out on multiple stations.
This has long been their model. They set up a bunch of shell companies to carry this out. But now under the Trump administration, they’ve sort of come out of hiding and pretending, and they’re just going for it.
Let me ask you about that relationship to Trump. But I first wanted to say, yeah, the CEO of Sinclair, I understand, has been quoted saying, “Right now there are three to five local players, and to us that doesn’t make sense.” I mean, it seems an assault on localism per se, before you even get to the ideological piece.
That’s absolutely right. I mean, that’s their business agenda. And I think that is also what blows up all these arguments — but, oh, we have so many choices for media today! — and that might be true, in some senses, around entertainment, but it’s absolutely not true when it comes to local news, still by far the No. 1 source of news and information for people at the local level, and you’ve got one newsroom broadcasting on multiple stations. There’s no one out there competing for stories, there’s no diversity of viewpoints being put forward; that’s incredibly damaging at that local level where it’s needed the most.
Now, Sinclair is not just ideologically sharing a worldview with Donald Trump. The relationship goes rather deeper than that, doesn’t it?
It absolutely does. This is a company that is essentially producing Trump TV, at least in terms of the national programming and the must-runs. Of course, good journalists at all these local stations are just trying to do their jobs and report what’s happening in the local community, but it is interspersed with, essentially, Republican Party talking points.
And, you know, after the election, Jared Kushner somewhat infamously acknowledged that he had a “deal,” as he called it, with Sinclair, to offer uncut access to the Sinclair airwaves for Trump. Sinclair will tell you, oh, we offered the same deal to Hillary Clinton, but strangely, only Donald Trump took them up on it. And they’ve gone out of their way to hire former Trump campaign folks like Boris Epshteyn, who is now their top political commentator, who essentially operates as an extension of the White House.
So we have a situation where you’ve got a network absolutely going to bat for the Republican Party, taking it upon itself, using all the same talking points and language that Trump does on “fake news,” to essentially offer an alternative narrative about what’s actually happening in Washington, attacking other journalistic outlets for aggressively covering the president, saying the Russia stuff is no big deal, and on and on and on, trumpeting Trump.
Then turning around and saying, OK, we’re here for our policy favors. We have a long wishlist of limits on media ownership and other regulations that we’d like to get rid of, and the Trump administration actually making that a priority, either by loosening the rules, or in one case actually reinstating a regulation the Obama administration got rid of, in order to allow Sinclair to pretend its national reach, at least when they’re at the FCC, to pretend that their national reach isn’t as big as it actually is.
Now, I understand that even those who might be assumed to share their worldview are against this merger, other companies, and that’s for different reasons. But still, you have other what we might call right-wing outlets who themselves oppose the merger.
That’s right. A number of groups filed formal challenges to the merger, including my group Free Press, but also Newsmax, some local newspaper publishers, Dish television. But it’s been interesting to see the critique coming from the right, which I think rightfully recognizes this is just too much media power in one company’s hands. And they know that if Sinclair is allowed to have this dominance over local television, then they’re going to use all of that money, all of that income, to move into other markets.
They have an online news service called Circa. Once they start making all this money from these big markets — from what’s called retransmission consent negotiations, which allows cable companies to carry local broadcast stations; from all the political ads — they’re going to pour that into undercutting their competitors on the right, even where there’s ideological alignment.
And I think what you’re seeing here, and you’re seeing this on the right and the left right now, is just growing concern about too much media power, growing appreciation of just how seriously we need to get about antitrust and other limits on one company getting so big that others can no longer afford to compete.
And that’s one of the things that’s at risk if a deal like this is allowed to go through, especially because what will happen is it will inspire other companies to do their own deals to try to catch up. So you’re going to see the Nexstars and the Foxes of the world suddenly saying, oh, Sinclair’s got 200 stations, maybe we need 200 stations as well. And suddenly you have even fewer choices at the local level, and those few remaining independent stations are finding it really hard to compete against the scale that these behemoths can offer to advertisers and others.
Let me just ask you, if power buys voice — and this does look a lot like favor-trading — where does dissent get air, and how do we fight this, and can we continue to fight it, even if the merger goes through?
I think we’re going to have to continue to fight it. The first step is to try to push back at the Federal Communications Commission, and public comment is still open, and people can go to FreePress.net. I urge them to file comments letting the Commission know about their concerns. But ultimately, this is a matter that Congress and others are going to have to look at. That’s going to be one of the key ways to push back here. As we look at, what is it going to take? It doesn’t feel like these conversations are possible in the era of Donald Trump, but they’re the ones we need to start having now, is what is it going to take to break up some of these media behemoths.
This is absolutely going in the wrong direction, and I think you see a lot of signs. All this concern on the right; you can look at what’s happening in Democratic circles, where suddenly antitrust is at the center of the platforms that they’re putting out there. We need to start moving in that direction, to stop just rubber-stamping these deals and start demanding that we need more local choices, more local accountability, more support for public and independent alternatives. Because if we just allow these guys to merge and merge and merge, we’ll be stuck with the same cookie-cutter content wherever we go, and it’s going to be very, very conservative, if not reactionary, if somebody doesn’t step in.
We’ve been speaking with Craig Aaron from the group Free Press. As he notes, you can find their work, including learning how to talk to the FCC on this merger, at FreePress.net. Craig Aaron, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.