Right-lean­ing group eyes lo­cal sta­tions in new deal

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - Spe­cial to The Denver Post By Joanne Ostrow

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.

“Must-run” con­cerns

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.”

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