Talk about the fox guarding the hen-house analogy. While we (me) were asleep at the switch, the republican President Donald Trump appointed in April 2017, a major “net neutrality” foe to head the FCC, Ajit Pai.
We all have noticed the right wing conservatives complaining about the traditional establishment outlets as being anti-President Trump and unfair in their coverage. The White Supremacists and other conservative folks in the White House would like to have better control over their messaging that they could widely disseminate. Well, they have just escalated their plans towards this goal, bigly.
Recently, the FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai managed to revive a loophole which violates, at least in spirit, the “congressional enacted national ownership cap” which would typically limit any media outlet, like Sinclair from expanding beyond the limit of 39% of American viewership.
The day after Ajit Pai became the FCC head, he had the FCC regulators vote to ease a limit on TV-station ownership, a step that opened a door to mergers such as Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc.’s bid for Tribune Media Co.
But the set up for this vote began as early as August 2016. See: Federal Communications Commission FCC 16-116 …
As per a 8/7/17 Baltimore Sun publication by Lorraine Mirabella, “Consumer watchdog group Allied Progress, which is opposing Sinclair Broadcast Group’s planned $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Co., asked the Federal Communications Commission on Monday (8/7/17) to deny the deal.”
“In a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit V. Pai, the group questions whether a deal that would create the single largest operator of local broadcast stations in the country serves the public interest. Hunt Valley-based Sinclair announced plans in May to acquire Tribune’s 42 local news stations, bringing its ownership count to 233 stations that could reach 72 percent of American households.”
“This level of ownership is unprecedented and would violate the national ownership cap,” Karl Frisch, the group’s executive director, said in the letter. “Sinclair’s acquisition of Tribune Media would result in less competition, fewer local program options and higher costs for consumers.”
The Conservative Nature of Sinclair Broadcasting:
Wash. Post: Sinclair’s Stations Have Been “Used To Attack Democrats Or To Boost Republicans.” The Washington Post reported in 2014 that after Sinclair purchased Washington’s ABC affiliate WJLA-TV, the channel took “a subtle but noticeable turn to the right.” The Post added that Sinclair’s stations have been “used to attack Democratic candidates or to boost Republicans,” and on the eve of 2012 presidential elections, “Sinclair stations in several battlegrounds states aired a corporate-produced half-hour news ‘special’ that criticized” then-President Barack Obama and his policies.”
From the September 16, 2014, article:
“There’s a new owner and a new approach to the news at WJLA-TV, Washington’s ABC affiliate. Under the direction of its ambitious corporate parent, the station’s news operations have taken a subtle but noticeable turn to the right.”
“The station has also begun to carry pieces produced by Sinclair’s Washington bureau about national issues and federal programs. These stories have generally been critical of the Obama administration and tend to offer perspectives primarily from conservative think tanks”.
“In the past, Sinclair hasn’t shied from using its TV stations to deliver clear political messages. This has most clearly come in election seasons, with stations being used to attack Democratic candidates or to boost Republicans:
●On the eve of the 2012 election between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, for example, Sinclair stations in several battlegrounds states aired a corporate-produced half-hour news “special” that criticized Obama’s handling of the economy, his signature health-care law and the administration’s management of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Romney’s record received less scrutiny.
●In 2007, the Federal Communications Commission fined Sinclair $36,000 for broadcasting two public-affairs shows, “America’s Black Forum” and “Election Countdown” in 2004 on nine of its stations without disclosing that host Armstrong Williams had been paid by an affiliate of the Education Department to make favorable comments about the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” policy. Sinclair said it had no knowledge of the arrangement, but the FCC said he programs violated rules against “payola punditry.” [The Washington Post, 9/16/14]
Here’s the rest of the story…
On August 6, 2017, Margaret Harding McGill and John Hendel of Politico penned the following report, “How Trump’s FCC aided Sinclair’s expansion.” (Use of a regulatory loophole will allow Sinclair to reach 72 percent of U.S. households after buying Tribune’s stations.)
“Sinclair Broadcast Group is expanding its conservative-leaning television empire into nearly three-quarters of American households — but its aggressive takeover of the airwaves wouldn’t have been possible without help from President Donald Trump’s chief at the Federal Communications Commission.”
“Sinclair, already the nation’s largest TV broadcaster, plans to buy 42 stations from Tribune Media in cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, on top of the more than 170 stations it already owns. It got a critical assist this spring from Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who revived a decades-old regulatory loophole that will keep Sinclair from vastly exceeding federal limits on media ownership.The change will allow Sinclair — a company known for injecting “must run” conservative segments into its local programming — to reach 72 percent of U.S. households after buying Tribune’s stations. That’s nearly double the congressionally imposed nationwide audience cap of 39 percent.”
“The FCC and the company say the agency wasn’t giving Sinclair any special favors by reviving the loophole, known as the “UHF discount,” which has long been considered technologically obsolete. But the Tribune deal would not have been viable if not for Pai’s intervention: Sinclair already reaches an estimated 38 percent of U.S. households without the discount, leaving it almost no room for growth.”
“The loophole is a throwback to the days when the ultra-high-frequency TV spectrum — the part higher than Channel 13 — was filled with low-budget stations with often-scratchy reception over analog rabbit ears. That quality gap no longer exists in today’s world of digital television, but under the policy that Pai revived, the commission does not fully count those stations’ market size when tallying a broadcaster’s national reach.”
Sinclair’s expanding empire
“Sinclair Broadcast Group owns stations in 81 markets, making it the nation’s largest TV broadcaster. The maps below show Sinclair’s footprint proportional to its total reach — which now covers an estimated 38 percent of U.S. households.Its $3.9 billion deal will give it stations in 19 new markets, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — and the ability to reach 72 percent of households.”
“Critics including the FCC’s most recent former chairman, Tom Wheeler, say the change amounts to a regulatory sleight-of-hand.”Congress was explicit in black letter saying 39 percent viewership would be the maximum,” said Wheeler, a Democrat who got rid of the discount last year. But instead, he said, “There was funny math created to allow the count to come up to still be below 39 percent, wink wink.”
“The FCC and Sinclair say a wide array of broadcasters — not just Sinclair — pushed for the return of the UHF discount, and they say Pai has been consistent in arguing that the agency shouldn’t scrap the discount without first undertaking a broader review of media ownership limits.”
“Pai, whom Trump elevated to chairman early this year, told House Democrats at a July 25 hearing that the commission didn’t single out Sinclair for special treatment.”
“Still, the FCC action removed the most serious obstacle for Sinclair, which has been a target for Democrats and liberal groups disturbed by reports that the company favored Trump in its election coverage.”
“The Washington Post in December (2016) reported that Sinclair “gave a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage to Trump during the campaign” while airing negative stories on Hillary Clinton. That followed POLITICO’s reporting on a boast by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner that the president’s campaign had struck a deal with the broadcast group for better media coverage. In April, Sinclair hired former White House aide Boris Epshteyn, who had organized Trump’s TV surrogates, as an on-air political analyst.”
“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.”
“On Pai’s first week on the job as chairman in late January, Sinclair urged the agency to reinstate the UHF discount, which allows ultra-high-frequency stations to count for only half their actual audience when calculating their national reach. Pai had dissented when the FCC’s then-Democratic majority abolished the discount in 2016, arguing that the commission should also review and adjust the national ownership cap.
“Once installed as head of the agency, Pai brought back the discount in a 2-1 party-line vote in April over the objections of Clyburn, who pointed out the irony that a chairman who has emphasized slashing outmoded regulations was reviving a “relic of a bygone era.” A little over two weeks after the FCC vote, Sinclair announced its acquisition of Tribune Media.”
“The FCC said multiple broadcasters, including CBS, NBC and Univision, supported the move, and said Pai was simply acting on his long-held position. “Had the Commission teed up both the UHF discount and the national cap in 2013 as he had requested, then this entire situation could have been avoided,” an FCC spokesperson said in a statement.”
“The majority Commissioners’ positions that media ownership reform is needed has been widely known for many years,” Sinclair Senior Vice President of Strategy and Policy Rebecca Hanson said in a statement.”
“Pai, who is viewed as friendly to broadcasters, also moved quickly to advance TV stations’ ability to offer a new transmission standard for higher-quality, over-the-air video. That’s of particular interest to Sinclair, which has invested more than $30 million in the next-generation TV technology.”
“The FCC chairman has further proposed eliminating a rule that requires each TV station to have a main studio in or near the community it serves, arguing that modern technology allows community interaction without an in-person visit to a local studio. Critics charge that’s another handout to Sinclair, with Wheeler warning in a July blog post that “Sinclair — long known for requiring their stations to carry right-wing programs produced by headquarters — will have an open field to replace local voices with national control.”
“With the regulatory path eased for its Tribune transaction, Sinclair is looking at relatively smooth sailing in GOP-dominated Washington. Ripley, the CEO, has expressed confidence the deal will receive regulatory approval from the FCC and the Justice Department, while acknowledging that the company might still have to drop some TV stations in select markets to fully adhere to ownership rules.”
“Recently (Sinclair) brought back a second, in-house lobbyist who previously lobbied for the broadcaster. One of the lobbyists, Hanson, has mostly focused on tamping down any Democratic opposition in Congress.”
“In June, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) led seven Democratic colleagues in calling for hearings on the deal. Sinclair’s KOMO TV station in Seattle, in Cantwell’s home state, has become a focal point for local station resistance to demands from the corporate office, according to a New York Times story in May that described how KOMO journalists would rebel against “must-run” content by airing it at times of low viewership.”
“”Local television broadcasters have long served the public interest. The Sinclair-Tribune merger threatens to upend this responsibility by consolidating local news into a single voice that reaches into 70 percent of American homes,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel, told POLITICO. “It’s no secret that Sinclair has used its large platform to push extremely conservative programming, while cutting deals with the Trump campaign to provide favorable coverage.”
“So far, there’s little indication Republican leadership in Congress intends to apply much scrutiny to the Tribune deal. Sinclair, which began as a family-owned TV station in Baltimore in the 1970s, has endeared itself to many Republicans with its conservative leanings — and has a long history of donating to GOP candidates over the years.”
“In the 2016 election cycle, Sinclair and its executives donated $300,000 to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The company gave to the fundraising efforts of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Its vice president, Frederick Smith, gave to the pro-Trump Great America PAC as well as to Montana Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte’s campaign a day after the lawmaker was charged with assaulting a journalist this year.”
John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” devoted (time) in a July show to mocking Sinclair’s “must run” segments and warning about the potential impact of the deal. “[I]n contrast to Fox News, a conservative outlet where you basically know what you’re getting, with Sinclair, they’re injecting Fox-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors.”
“Epshteyn blasted Oliver’s segment, and Sinclair tripled the number of weekly segments featuring the former Trump aide’s commentary. A Sinclair executive sent a memo to station news directors defending the must-runs against irresponsible media reports.”
“More opposition could emerge during the regulatory review process. Public interest group Public Knowledge, the American Cable Association and DISH Network urged the FCC to slow down the review process and make Sinclair release more information about how the deal will benefit the public. Conservative website Newsmax — a potential competitor to Sinclair in the right-wing news business — also told the FCC that the deal raises “serious competitive concerns” in a filing supporting the request for more time and information. The FCC denied the requests.”
“Thankfully, we’ve got Chairman Pai, who’s launched an action to look at these antiquated rules which we think has artificially tipped the playing field away from TV broadcast to the point of making us uncompetitive,” Ripley told attendees at a Media Institute luncheon in June.”