FCC Enables Faster Media Consolidation as Pro-Trump Sinclair Group Seizes Even More Local Stations

A major decision by the Federal Communications Commission Tuesday eliminated a decades-old rule that ensures community residents can have a say in their local broadcast TV station. This comes as the FCC announced plans Wednesday to abolish long-standing media ownership rules. Opponents say these changes will accelerate media consolidation, allowing massive corporate media companies, such as the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group, to buy up and control even more local stations. We speak with Andy Kroll, senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine, whose story in their new issue is titled “Ready for Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take Over Your Local News.”

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to a major decision by the Federal Communications Commission that eliminates a decades-old rule that ensures community residents can have a say in their local broadcast TV station. The regulation is known as the “main studio rule,” and it requires broadcasters to have a physical studio near where they have a license to transmit.

This comes as the FCC also announced plans, at a hearing Wednesday, to abolish long-standing media-ownership rules, including limits on how many stations or newspapers one company can own in a single market. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai testified Wednesday during a congressional hearing.

AJIT PAI: If you believe, as I do, that the federal government has no business intervening in the news, then we must stop the federal government from intervening in the news business. And that is why, this afternoon, I shared with my fellow commissioners an order that will reform our media ownership rules and help pull the government, once and for all, out of the newsroom. We will vote on this order at our November 16th meeting.

The marketplace today is nothing like it was in 1975. Newspapers are shutting down. Many radio and TV stations are struggling, especially in smaller and rural markets. Online competition for the collection and distribution of news is even greater than it ever was. And just two internet companies claim 100 percent of recent online advertising growth. Indeed, their digital ad revenue alone this year will be greater than the market cap of the entire broadcasting industry. And yet the FCC’s rules still presume that the market is defined entirely by pulp and rabbit ears.

AMY GOODMAN: But opponents say these changes will accelerate media consolidation, allowing massive corporate media companies, such as the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group, to buy up and control even more local stations. Earlier this year, Trump’s FCC appointees revived a regulatory loophole that could allow Sinclair to buy 42 TV stations from Tribune Media Company, on top of the more than 170 stations it already owns. The deal means Sinclair stations would reach about 72 percent — almost three-quarters — of US households.

This comes as former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly has reportedly been negotiating for a position with Sinclair Broadcast Group. O’Reilly secretly settled a sexual harassment claim for $32 million in January, the sixth and by far the largest such settlement during his tenure at Fox, from which he was fired.

For more, we’re joined in Washington, DC, by Andy Kroll, senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine, where he’s written extensively about the FCC. His latest story in the current issue is headlined “Ready for Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take Over Your Local News.”

Andy, welcome back to Democracy Now! You know, a lot of the meme going around is that Trump just can’t get anything done, but it sure doesn’t look that way at the FCC this week. Can you talk about what’s happened?

ANDY KROLL: Well, at the FCC this week, as you described, the commission voted along party lines — three Republicans voting in favor, two voting in opposition — to eliminate the main studio rule, this rule from about 80 years ago saying that a local TV or radio station needs to have its studio, its primary studio, in or near the community it serves. And that served a number of purposes, not only for the community to be able to interact with that station, but also tethering that station to the community in which it’s reporting the news and delivering some value to the people who watch it. That rule has been eliminated.

And then, as we saw in the clip that you just showed, the chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, a Republican, former staffer to Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, has said that there is a whole bunch more deregulation in the works. This comes in a year, since President Trump’s inauguration in January, in which the FCC has consistently knocked down one barrier after another to enabling a massive deal frenzy, a consolidation in the broadcast business, which is exactly what companies like Sinclair want, going forward, so that they can gobble up as many TV stations around the country as they can, and basically dominate the local news business.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Andy, before we get to Sinclair Broadcasting, I wanted to ask you about the context of this attempt — or, in fact, the overturning of the main studio rule. It’s been in effect, as you said, for several decades. Has any other administration attempted to overturn it?

ANDY KROLL: No. The rule has been tweaked over time, on several occasions, to, what they say, modernize it. But the substance of the rule, having that studio in the community where the viewers, where the people who depend on that TV or radio station is, that has not changed over time. And the supporters of the rule say there’s a very clear reason for that. Yes, it’s true that with email and with social media you can send a message to your TV station, but the rule also gave that sense of locality. It gave that connection in the newsgathering and in the — you know, just the connection to a community that is so vital to local news. And that has been a bedrock of broadcast television for nearly 80 years and has gone unchallenged under Republican administrations and under Democratic administrations. And now, under President Trump and with Commissioner Pai at the FCC, that rule is ancient history.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Andy, before — could you explain, because — as a result of overturning this rule, all of these different stations, TV stations and radio stations, can be increasingly consolidated. Now, one of the companies under which these stations have been consolidated is Sinclair Broadcasting. But this media organization, very few people know about. So could you tell us about this broadcasting channel?

ANDY KROLL: Yeah. I like to say that Sinclair Broadcast Group is the most influential media organization that most Americans have never heard of. It owns nearly — owns or operates nearly 200 local TV stations around the country. It has a tremendous influence over the local news business.

And it marries that influence, that size, reaching into 40 percent of households right now, with a unabashed conservative and pro-Trump agenda. You see that in the kind of programming that Sinclair produces and sends out to its local stations. These are called “must-run segments.” They take, you know, basically, a shamelessly pro-Trump message, repeating talking points of the administration’s through its commentators, and putting that into the local news.

And as you mentioned earlier, Sinclair is eyeing a deal to acquire 42 new stations around the country, giving it a reach to almost three-quarters of American households. So this is a massive broadcast company, set to get even bigger. And it has a distinct conservative viewpoint that it is intent and bent on projecting out to the millions of people who watch its television channels.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean when you say “intent and bent on.” Your headline of your piece, “Ready for Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take Over Your Local News.” What are the edicts being handed down?

ANDY KROLL: Well, Sinclair is a pioneer in what’s known as the “must-run segment.” This is a segment that is produced by Sinclair’s corporate headquarters here in the DC area and also in Maryland, that it produces, and then it sends out to its stations around the country — again, almost 200 of them — and says, “You are required to run this 90-second commentary or this two-minute editorial.” That content, that is being distributed out around the country, has a very clear, unequivocal conservative, partisan bent to it and, frankly, a pro-Trump bent to it.

You know, the lead political analyst, if you could call it that, at Sinclair is a man named Boris Epshteyn, former Trump campaign aide and a former Trump White House aide, who left the administration and immediately went into this role at Sinclair. His segments are called “Bottom Line with Boris.” They are distributed, and they are required to run every day at Sinclair stations. And these are basically Trump talking points. And, I mean, you can go on YouTube, you can watch all of his clips in a row. They are 100 percent toeing the Trump line. And if they’re not that, they’re softball interviews with Trump administration officials.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, of course, people might know who Boris Epshteyn is, because during the campaign he was one of his spokespeople, always interviewed on TV. This is one of Boris Epshteyn’s recent commentaries.

BORIS EPSHTEYN: It is important to note that voter fraud goes beyond stealing or miscounting ballots. Intentionally improper voter registration is absolutely a type of voter fraud. The Commission on Election Integrity has gotten to work. … The extent of voter fraud in our elections has been hotly debated between the left and the right. The president’s commission has been established to come up with a factual, impartial answer to that question. The states should do everything within their power to cooperate with the commission. And that’s the bottom line.

AMY GOODMAN: And that is required by every station to run, Andy Kroll?

ANDY KROLL: That’s correct. You are —

AMY GOODMAN: This is —

ANDY KROLL: Yes, that’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: This is another clip from a Sinclair station, featuring former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka. The show was broadcast earlier this month.

SEBASTIAN GORKA: You do not make legislation out of outliers. Our big issue is black African gun crime against black Africans. It is a tragedy. Go to Chicago. Go to the cities run by Democrats for 40 years. Black young men are murdering each other by the bushel.

AMY GOODMAN: “By the bushel.” That’s former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka referring to “black African [gun] crime” on “black [Africans],” saying black men are killing each other “by the bushel.” Andy Kroll?

ANDY KROLL: Sebastian Gorka, of course, another alumnus of the Trump White House, who, upon leaving, went immediately to Sinclair and is now a talking head at Sinclair. So you see this trend of Trump officials going to Sinclair Broadcast Group and then them being put on the airwaves and either pushing a completely crazy message, that Sebastian Gorka just did, on a segment that was supposed to be about guns in America —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I think “outright racist” is a very —

ANDY KROLL: Outright racist, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — more accurate way to describe it.

ANDY KROLL: Yeah, it’s hard to find the words to describe what that was. You have Boris Epshteyn, as well. His segment, that we just listened to, is basically advocacy for the Trump administration in its deeply flawed, inept supposed commission on investigating voter fraud, which, of course, in most cases, doesn’t exist.

So, you have this message, and you have stations around the country that, in a lot of cases, just want to do local news. But as they come under the Sinclair umbrella, they are being told by headquarters, “You will run these segments.” In Boris Epshteyn’s case, Sinclair doubled down and tripled the number of times that Boris Epshteyn was required to be run by its stations. And so, this is the progression we’re seeing this year. So we’re only seeing a more pro-Trump message, at the same time that Sinclair is looking to gobble up more stations and consolidate its control.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, could you talk, Andy, about the founder of Sinclair Broadcasting Group, David Smith?

ANDY KROLL: Yeah. David Smith is a media mogul with an incredible amount of sway over what goes on on the local airwaves. He’s not well known on the level of, say, a Rupert Murdoch, for instance, even though the two men would, I think, consider themselves contemporaries or competitors.

David Smith built a small family company that had three TV stations, starting in the mid-’80s. They were based out of Baltimore. And he — by finding ways around the law and taking advantage of ways that the law was changed — in this case, deregulated — in the past few decades, he has grown Sinclair into this conservative TV behemoth that it is today, and one that stands to get even bigger if the Tribune Media merger goes through.

David Smith, longtime donor to mostly Republicans, though Democrats, as well, who are in a position to help his company. And today, you know, he throws a party for a Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas. He travels in a, you know, elite, rarefied group of Republican supporters. He’s even bragged about dining at the White House with the president. So he is right at the top of a Republican-industry-donor pyramid, if you will. But he has managed to avoid the amount of attention that, say, a Rupert Murdoch or some other international media moguls that we do of have attracted.

AMY GOODMAN: And the merging of Sinclair and Tribune? I mean, these are the smaller local stations that dot the United States, you know, crisscross the United States.

ANDY KROLL: That’s right. The deal would give, again, 42 television stations from Sinclair — or from Tribune into Sinclair. It would add more of those dots on the map, as you mentioned. Right now, Sinclair has no presence in Colorado. This would give it a major presence in Colorado. But it would also bring stations in the three largest media markets in the country into the Sinclair company: New York, WPIX; KTLA in Los Angeles; and WGN, one of the most famous broadcast companies in America, in Chicago. So this would really seal Sinclair’s position as the sort of dominant broadcast company — and, of course, given that many more tens of millions of people who would be potentially seeing Boris Epshteyn, Sebastian Gorka, potentially Bill O’Reilly.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, when we were talking about Sebastian Gorka, just to understand, as he’s talking about black African violence here in the United States, who he is, the whole controversy around him wearing that pin at the inauguration, of the Vitézi Rend, the newspaper The Forward reporting members of the Vitézi Rend elite order confirmed Gorka took a lifelong oath of loyalty to the Hungarian far-right-wing group, listed by the US State Department as having been under the direction of the Nazi government of Germany during World War II. I mean, just the significance of what is being required by these local stations to run all over the country?

ANDY KROLL: Yeah. And Gorka is — if you watch that clip, or the roundtable that that clip comes from, which is available on Sinclair’s website, I mean, Sebastian Gorka is more or less given an open mic to say what he thinks about, in this case, quote-unquote, “guns in America.” We see where he took that theme. But he was a foreign policy aide in the Trump White House. He was not a domestic policy expert. He was not someone working on the issue of guns, for all that we know. And yet he is just given this platform, as he has been on several other occasions with Sinclair.

The company seems to have no qualms, given the background that you describe, the fantastic reporting that The Forward has done on his past. They seem to have no problem giving him that platform, just as they reportedly seem to be considering an arrangement with Bill O’Reilly, someone who, as you mentioned, has settled sexual harassment claims for tens of millions of dollars when he was at Fox News, to the point that Fox fired him.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain that last part. What do you understand is the state of these negotiations? And have they been stopped by this latest news of his $32 million settlement with a Fox host for sexual harassment?

ANDY KROLL: What I’ve heard and what I’ve seen reported in the past week is that there are negotiations underway between Sinclair and O’Reilly around either — whether it would be bringing him in as a host or a commentator or some kind of arrangement or partnership between O’Reilly having his own — potentially his own program, his own platform, and Sinclair as the megaphone, if you will, projecting that program, projecting O’Reilly out, using its empire of stations. Now, Sinclair has denied that it is talking with O’Reilly, and has repeatedly done that, though the reporting, that doesn’t go for the official comment from Sinclair, would suggest otherwise.

I will say that I, you know, have talked to people in and around Sinclair, and among the rank and file, if you will, there is kind of shock and disgust that — in light of O’Reilly’s sexual harassment settlements and all the allegations at Fox, that Sinclair would be thinking about considering a partnership with him has a lot of people there upset, concerned about their futures, whether they want to work there if Bill O’Reilly joins the company in some capacity.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andy Kroll, we want to thank you for being with us. We’ll certainly link to your piece. Andy Kroll, senior reporter at Mother Jones magazine, where he has written extensively about the FCC and Sinclair Broadcasting. His piece published this week, we’ll link to, “Ready for Trump TV? Inside Sinclair Broadcasting’s Plot to Take Over Your Local News.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, an undocumented teenager in detention in Texas prevails over the Trump administration. She finally this week gets the abortion she has been seeking for weeks. Stay with us.

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AMY GOODMAN: “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” by actor and singer Robert Guillaume. Robert Guillaume was the first black actor to win an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1979 for his character Benson DuBois, a butler for a white family in the show Soap. Robert Guillaume died at 89 on Tuesday.