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The Wash­ing­ton Post in De­cem­ber re­ported that the com­pany’s sta­tions rou­tinely gave “neu­tral or fa­vor­able cov­er­age” to Don­ald Trump dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign while giv­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton over­whelm­ingly neg­a­tive cov­er­age.

Ac­cord­ing to the New York Times, Sin­clair forces lo­cal sta­tions to air “must run” po­lit­i­cal com­men­taries from con­ser­va­tive pun­dits such as for­mer Sin­clair ex­ec­u­tive Mark Hy­man and one time Trump aide Boris Ep­shteyn. Th­ese com­men­taries rou­tinely bash so­cial wel­fare spend­ing, Democrats and lib­eral causes.

Sin­clair has a long his­tory of po­lit­i­cal­ly­mo­ti­vated pro­gram­ming de­ci­sions. After the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of 9/11, the com­pany or­dered its Bal­ti­more sta­tion to “read pa­tri­otic state­ments prais­ing Pres­i­dent Bush.” In 2004, Sin­clair told its sta­tions to air a film smear­ing pres­i­den­tial can­di­date John Kerry’s ser­vice in the Viet­nam War, only to back off be­cause of the en­su­ing controversy. On the eve of the 2012 elec­tion, the com­pany com­pelled sta­tions in bat­tle­ground

states like Ohio to run a half-hour “elec­tion spe­cial” loaded with par­ti­san crit­i­cisms of Pres­i­dent Obama. Among other things, the broad­cast pro­claimed that “the cost of Oba­macare is mak­ing many Amer­i­cans sick to their stom­achs.”

Vet­eran re­porter David Zu­rawik of The Bal­ti­more Sun has said Sin­clair, “comes as close to clas­sic pro­pa­ganda as I think I’ve seen in thirty years of cov­er­ing lo­cal tele­vi­sion or na­tional tele­vi­sion.”

The han­dling of the Sin­clair-Tri­bune merger by the FCC – now un­der the di­rec­tion of Trump’s ap­pointed chair, Ajit Pai-- raises some se­ri­ous ques­tions about po­lit­i­cal fa­voritism and pref­er­en­tial treat­ment on the part of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors.

Since Pai took the reins at the FCC, the agency has made a num­ber of de­ci­sions that di­rectly ben­e­fited Sin­clair. The agency re­in­stated an ob­scure rule – the “UHF” dis­count-- mak­ing it pos­si­ble for Sin­clair to own sta­tions reach­ing a larger share of the na­tional TV au­di­ence than would have been per­mit­ted pre­vi­ously. It also es­tab­lished an ex­pe­dited time­line for re­view of the Tri­bune pur­chase.

What makes this pat­tern of fa­voritism so sus­pi­cious is that Trump’s son-in-law and se­nior White House ad­vi­sor Jared Kush­ner has boasted publi­cally that in the lead up to the elec­tion the Trump cam­paign “struck a deal” with Sin­clair for bet­ter cov­er­age. Fol­low­ing the elec­tion, Trump him­self met with Sin­clair Chair­man David Smith to dis­cuss FCC rule changes. And since be­com­ing FCC chair, Pai has met sev­eral times with Sin­clair of­fi­cials.

As Craig Aaron of me­dia re­form group Free Press com­mented, “It sure looks like a quid pro quo.”

For­tu­nately, the FCC has been known to re­spond to pub­lic pres­sure. The agency has al­ready re­ceived close to a thou­sand com­ments op­pos­ing Sin­clair’s pro­posed takeover of Tri­bune Me­dia. The Coali­tion to Save Lo­cal Me­dia—a group of in­de­pen­dent me­dia com­pa­nies, lo­cal ca­ble dis­trib­u­tors and civic or­ga­ni­za­tions—is or­ga­niz­ing to fight the merger.

Hope­fully, th­ese ef­forts will be suc­cess­ful. A big­ger, more pow­er­ful Sin­clair would be bad for the TV in­dus­try, bad for view­ers and bad for democ­racy.

Steve Macek is pro­fes­sor and chair of the Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Me­dia Stud­ies at North Cen­tral Col­lege in Naperville, Ill.

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