Right-leaning group eyes local stations in new deal
There’s an undercurrent of anxiety at Denver’s two Tribuneowned TV stations, KDVR and KWGN.
Newsroom staffers are waiting to see whether Sinclair Broadcast Group will be allowed to purchase Tribune Media Company and its 42 local TV stations to become the country’s largest station group owner.
What that would mean for the local stations — and for the media landscape nationally — is a looming question. Sinclair has a reputation for weaving conservative commentary into local newscasts. And the group may have even grander ambitions.
As if to illustrate the concern about the potential new owner, KDVR news director Holly
Gauntt announced her departure Wednesday after two years at the station. She’s jumping across the street, literally, to KMGH-Channel 7 in the same role, replacing Lindsay Radford, who departed on June 3.
“I have so much respect, admiration and affection for the KDVR/KWGN team,” Gauntt said. She added that she looks forward to working with the staff at KMGH. “We’ll do good things with the backing of a company that has such rich history in quality journalism.”
In a note to staff, KDVR-KWGN general manager Joan Barrett said: “We have great momentum here at 100 East Speer, and that won’t change.” A strict “no comment” mandate is in effect at KDVR and KWGN, but the newsroom is understandably rattled.
Sinclair announced its $3.9 billion bid to buy Tribune in May. In addition to CW2 (KWGN) and Fox31 (KDVR) in Denver, the deal includes WGN in Chicago, WPIX in New York, KTLA in Los Ange- les and WDCW in Washington.
The anxiety on Speer Boulevard isn’t so bad that employees are readying résumés. But some said they might if, after six months or a year of Sinclair ownership, they find the situation untenable.
Specifically, there is consternation at the local stations regarding the well-known political bent of the Sinclair group.
A recent comedic rant by John Oliver on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” conveyed the problem: Sinclair dictates certain “must-run” content to its stations’ newsrooms. That content is usually politically right of center. This is, after all, the broadcast operation that President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner bragged he struck a deal with for more favorable coverage during the campaign in exchange for greater access. (Sinclair denied a deal ever happened.)
Speculation is rife that Maryland-based Sinclair is rapidly expanding as a prelude to launching its own conservative news network — one to rival Fox News. If the merger goes through, Sinclair could add 42 stations in 33 markets to its media empire, as well as the cable network WGN America.
Speaking of readying résumés: Recently fired Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly is available to lead an upstart conservative TV network.
Barrett declined to comment on any aspect of the situation, as the sale is still working its way through the Department of Justice and must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. Gary Weitman, Tribune’s chief communications officer, also declined to comment.
The DO J is expected to examine the proposed sale for compliance with antitrust law. The FCC is expected to examine whether the acquisition is in the public interest. Under its Republican chairman, the FCC has relaxed media ownership rules. The commission recently opened a docket on the case, inviting public comment. The deadline is Aug. 7.
It’s not just the size of the megadeal that is drawing concern but also Sinclair’s alignment with politically conservative candidates and causes. The company hired Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump spokesman, as chief political analyst in April and last week announced it would triple the number of Epshteyn “must-run” commentaries on its stations around the country from three per week to nine.
Denver media circles are abuzz. KUSA anchor Kyle Clark responded to The Hill’s report on the “must-runs” with this tweet: “Methinks Denver TV viewers aren’t going to love this.”
A KDVR insider who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject confirmed that “people in the newsroom are worried about the must-runs.”
Opening in ratings battle
Fox31 staffers are understandably proud of the ratings traction the station has gained recently. In the May sweeps, the station for the first time claimed the title of No. 2, inching up on Channel 9 and beating out KCNC-Channel 4 in key news battles.
Particularly with this summer’s departure of longtime KUSA anchor Adele Arakawa, the Fox31 newsroom sees the market leader as vulnerable at 10 p.m. “The hope is Sinclair recognizes our momentum and doesn’t interfere with it,” the KDVR source said.
From a journalistic standpoint, the dictating of editorial content by a distant owner is worrisome.
Fred Brown, a former Denver Post reporter and columnist who now teaches media ethics at the University of Denver, said via email: “If it’s true that audiences trust local news more than national news, and John Oliver cited one of several studies that have shown that, then this ‘mustrun’ content produced by Sinclair headquarters has a real potential of eroding that trust. It seems to me that people are more interested in stuff that happens closer to them, and they want straight, factual reporting about that. … I just don’t understand how carpetbagging conservatives are going to be much of a draw, especially since local news tends to look at things with rose-colored glasses, not with blood in the eye.”
But who would bet against a new voice on the Right? It could be a moneymaker, especially as Fox News has suffered sexual harassment inquiries and staff defections. Brown observed that conservatives have “done very well, financially and politically, delivering patently partisan messages to consumers.”