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.