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After several weeks of uncertainty, Tribune Media has officially pulled the plug on its planned acquisition by conservative local TV broadcasting behemoth Sinclair Broadcast Group. Though Sinclair’s massive expansion plan is foiled, the company remains the largest owner and operator of local TV stations in the country and an increasingly popular friendly media platform for conservatives. And there are other local media battles on the horizon.
On August 9, Tribune Media announced it has pulled out of the embattled Sinclair-Tribune acquisition proposal and has filed a lawsuit against Sinclair for “breach of contract,” citing the company’s questionable conduct that led to the deal’s slow-tracking. The announcement comes several weeks after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated the proposed acquisition for further legal scrutiny, citing possible “misrepresentation or lack of candor” by Sinclair. In the time since, Sinclair’s extensive record of shady business tactics has returned to the spotlight. And as of late July, both Sinclair and Tribune, along with several other major broadcasters, are being investigated by the Department of Justice for possible advertisement price fixing.
The end of this proposed expansion is a huge victory for those who want local news to stay truly local, and especially those communities who were set to see Sinclair take over their airwaves. But Sinclair is still a major threat to the future of local news.
Sinclair currently owns or operates 192 TV stations in 89 different local media markets across the country. Even without the new stations it would have acquired through the Tribune purchase, Sinclair is still the largest owner and operator of local TV stations in the country. It’s already actively inflicting plenty of damage to local communities using two tactics: consolidation and content.
Sinclair’s M.O. for years has been to infiltrate media markets and consolidate news resources, making local news measurably less local and more conservative. The company currently dominates numerous specific local media markets across the nation, using several types of legal maneuvers to own, operate, or otherwise control multiple top broadcast stations in a given place. There are at least 48 stations in 23 states that aren’t owned by Sinclair but are operated by the company in some capacity.
Through outright ownership and roundabout legal agreements, Sinclair manages to currently broadcast “must-run” segments on around 100 local news stations nationwide. These stations are forced to air, often during morning or nightly newscasts, pro-Trump commentary segments hosted by former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn and regular “Terrorism Alert Desk” segments seemingly designed to spur anti-Muslim xenophobia.
Sinclair’s most well-known connection to the Trump administration is its “Bottom Line With Boris” series, particularly segments in which Epshteyn does friendly interviews with members of the Trump administration. At least seven administration officials -- and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani -- have used Sinclair as a friendly media platform. In the last few weeks, Sinclair has mandated that its news stations air four different excerpts from Epshteyn’s recent interview with Vice President Mike Pence.
Epshteyn’s blatant Trump propaganda is only a small piece of the much larger web of connections between Sinclair and elected officials and members of the Trump camp. Trump has given exclusive interviews to Sinclair reporters at least 16 times, and Trump and others in his orbit have promoted Sinclair and its content.
And though the Sinclair-Tribune deal has been shuttered, an internal investigation into Trump-appointed FCC chair Ajit Pai’s relationship with Sinclair may still be ongoing. In February, The New York Times reported that the FCC inspector general has opened an internal investigation into potential improper conduct by Pai and his aides in pushing deregulatory measures that have specifically benefited Sinclair. The investigation began after lawmakers called on the inspector general to investigate a “disturbing pattern of a three way quid-pro-quo” that could include a laundry list of activities, beginning shortly after Sinclair’s top executive told then-candidate Trump the outlet was there to “deliver [his] message” to America before the 2016 election.
Sinclair began meeting with current and former Fox News personalities while waiting for the Tribune deal to be approved, reportedly planning to develop a direct cable news competitor for Fox. It was developing ideas for a “three-hour block of news-opinion programming” that could air on a cable network Sinclair already owns or another it would have acquired in the Tribune deal.
Even without the deal, Sinclair still has options for pursuing its cable news idea. In July, Buzzfeed News reported that Sinclair was developing a free streaming app called STIRR that it could use to launch its Fox News competitor. And Sinclair bought Circa, an online news company, in 2015. Sinclair stations already typically link to Circa on their websites and sometimes run packaged segments from Circa on their local newscasts. And after a 2017 stint as the prime resource for stoking Fox host Sean Hannity’s pro-Trump conspiracy theories, the outlet is now focused on bringing Sinclair’s nationally produced news segments to a wider audience.
Though it did sideline the Sinclair-Tribune deal, the Trump FCC is still very much in favor of media deregulation, and it’s poised to consider another move that could help Sinclair and other large broadcasters homogenize local news. In conversations with Media Matters, representatives from media and consumer advocacy groups said a possible FCC reconsideration of what’s known as the national ownership cap, or national television audience reach cap, could be the next big local media fight on the horizon.
Currently, the law specifies that no broadcaster could own local stations reaching more than a collective 39 percent of U.S. television households. Changing this rule would give major companies like Sinclair the freedom to pursue other mergers and acquisitions currently restricted by the cap -- and it’s only a matter of time before the FCC makes a move.
The commission gave public notice back in December that it plans to reconsider the cap, and a long list of broadcasters has already signaled public support for raising the limit. Sinclair, for its part, urged the FCC to eliminate the cap altogether.
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After Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, and iTunes all removed conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Infowars pages from their platforms, several right-wing media figures leapt to the extremist’s defense. Jones’ defenders responded by criticizing and threatening “the entire rotten tech machine” and invoking a wide range of comparisons to support him, including Star Wars, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, reality TV star Kylie Jenner, and the Holocaust.
Free Press policy analyst Dana Floberg: “If the FCC loosens the national ownership cap, it'll be even easier for Sinclair and other big broadcasters to merge their way to national broadcasting monopolies”
With conservative local TV behemoth Sinclair Broadcast Group’s unprecedented expansion plan now in sudden peril, advocates are warning that the fight for local news is far from over. The Trump Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is still very much in favor of media deregulation, and it’s poised to consider another move that could homogenize your local news.
July brought a bombshell announcement from the FCC: Sinclair’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media, which would give the local TV giant unprecedented control over local stations across the country, was designated for greater legal scrutiny. The decision was shocking to opponents of the deal, who had fought back as the FCC spent the last year bestowing upon Sinclair a series of regulatory giveaways that made the proposed deal possible in the first place.
In announcing the need for additional consideration -- a move that has doomed similar large transactions in the past -- the FCC cited several specific divestitures proposed as part of the deal, which would have involved Sinclair’s signature use of legal loopholes to skirt ownership caps. It even asserted that Sinclair may have misrepresented its intentions in these cases. As of publication, however, neither Sinclair nor Tribune has indicated it will pull back from the deal rather than follow through with a hearing.
In the weeks since the announcement, consumer and media advocates who had previously faced a sharp uphill battle in challenging the merger are now discussing other imminent threats to ensuring a diversity of voices in local media, including Sinclair’s larger repertoire of sketchy business practices and other consolidation efforts on the horizon.
In conversations with Media Matters, representatives from media and consumer advocacy groups said a possible FCC reconsideration of what’s known as the national ownership cap, or national television audience reach cap, could be the next big local media fight on the horizon.
As Francella Ochillo, the director of government and legal affairs at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, explained to Media Matters, loosening ownership limits “would pave the way for additional media consolidation and cross-ownership, allowing one entity to own more stations in already concentrated markets. That will also have a direct impact on the diversity of voices in those communities.”
In 2004, Congress created a statute stating that no broadcaster could own local stations reaching more than a collective 39 percent of U.S. television households. The new cap was part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004, which also specified that only Congress -- and not the FCC -- could change that 39 percent figure moving forward.
Though it does not have the power to change the cap unilaterally, the FCC, in the years since, has made changes to how that ownership reach is calculated. Most notably, the commission has waffled back and forth in recent years about using a now-outdated rule known as the UHF discount, which allows station owners to calculate their ownership reach in a misleading way that effectively skirts the 39 percent cap. The FCC’s bizarre move to reinstate the UHF discount in 2017 is what allowed Sinclair to pursue such a huge acquisition to begin with.
Some advocacy groups challenged the UHF discount reinstatement in court, but the case was recently dismissed for lack of standing, with no ruling on the merits of the case. (Earlier questioning from the panel of judges suggested skepticism of the FCC’s reasoning for reinstating the outdated rule, though. One judge said the commission seemed to be keeping the discount “on life support.”)
Now it appears that the FCC will reconsider both the UHF discount and the entire national ownership cap, though. It’s only a matter of when and how drastically things could change.
For his part, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai remains heavily in favor of media deregulation and consolidation, often under the guise of innovation; he expressed a desire to raise the national ownership cap as far back as 2013.
The commission in December gave public notice of its intent to review the current limit, introducing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and mentioning the possibility that the cap could be eliminated altogether.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a dissenting statement at the time that by pursuing new rulemaking on the national cap, “we are destroying our most basic values and tearing apart the rules that have helped keep our media markets local, diverse, and competitive.” Then-Commissioner Mignon Clyburn lamented, “The current Administration, in its quest to green light even greater media consolidation, has found a way to rewrite history” by initiating a reconsideration of the cap without the authority to do so.
A long list of major broadcasting companies stated their support for raising the cap to 50 percent after the rulemaking announcement. And Sinclair urged the FCC in an April filing to eliminate the cap altogether.
The FCC has not acted further on the reconsideration yet, though there were rumors it would to do so in July. But when it does, a change could boost not just Sinclair (which would be free to pursue other deals currently restricted by the cap) but also the many other major broadcast owners that are looking to further expand but currently cannot.
Dana Floberg, a policy analyst at consumer advocacy group Free Press, explained to Media Matters, “If the FCC loosens the national ownership cap, it'll be even easier for Sinclair and other big broadcasters to merge their way to national broadcasting monopolies.”
What’s more: Loosening or eliminating the cap would leave local media consumers -- especially some communities of color that rely more heavily on local broadcast news -- with fewer options.
Ochillo described this significant potential impact of a corporate-friendly change to the cap. “As media consolidation increases, the number of voices controlling the local media broadcasts will decrease. That means that media ownership could become even more homogenous than it is today. The FCC must honor its commitment to promote diversity in media ownership.”
Chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn: “Let’s hope he is confirmed without delay”
Conservative TV giant Sinclair Broadcast Group is requiring its local news stations across the country to air multiple “must-run” segments praising “perfectly qualified” Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh and encouraging a quick confirmation.
As of July 27, Sinclair has produced at least four “must-run” commentary segments about the open Supreme Court seat, including two that feature excerpts from interviews with Vice President Mike Pence and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). The segments either laud Kavanaugh’s qualifications, dismiss real concerns about what’s at stake if he is confirmed, or push for a quick confirmation process. Some do all three.
Sinclair designates that certain news and commentary segments, produced in its national studios, must air on its local news stations across the country -- including all four of the Kavanaugh-related segments. According to a Media Matters search of the iQ media database, one or more of these segments have aired in at least 22 states, including those with potentially key senators in a confirmation vote like Alabama, Maine, Nevada, and West Virginia.
The first “must-run” aired on June 28 and 29, shortly after Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. In his recurring “Bottom Line With Boris” commentary segment, Sinclair chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn argued that the Senate ought to confirm whomever President Donald Trump would nominate to replace Kennedy before the midterm elections in November. Epshteyn ended the segment, “Nominating and confirming a second conservative justice to the Supreme Court will be a huge achievement for the president and Senate Republicans. It will further cement their reputation as defenders of the rule of law and our Constitution.”
Here is the full segment, as aired on WPFO (Fox 23) in Portland, Maine:
A second “must-run” segment aired on July 10 and July 11, right after Trump announced his nomination of Kavanaugh. Again, Epshteyn argued that Kavanaugh ought to be confirmed quickly and listed off reasons why the judge was “immensely qualified” for the role. Epshteyn also argues that the far-right wing of the GOP should support the nomination and that Kavanaugh is “the least controversial” and “easily the most confirmable” candidate. He also mentioned by name three Democratic senators who are up for re-election: Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, and Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana. Epshteyn predicted “most” would vote to confirm Kavanaugh “so as to keep their chances to be re-elected alive.”
Here is the full segment, as aired on WVAH (Fox 11) in Charleston, West Virginia:
The “must-run” featuring Rep. Lamar Smith aired on July 17 and July 18. In the clip, Smith attempted to dismiss concerns that Kavanaugh’s confirmation would threaten abortion access, saying, “Clearly, he is a judge who has made comments about Roe v. Wade but he’s also written a book on the importance of precedent. I think a lot of legal scholars don't expect him to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, although I think a lot of the Democratic senators are using that as a scare tactic. I think it’s probably unlikely it would be completely overturned.”
Epshteyn offered no additional context on the matter, then concluded, “There’s no question that Judge Brett Kavanaugh is perfectly qualified to be the next Supreme Court Justice. Let’s hope he is confirmed without delay.” Here is the full segment, as aired on WBMA (ABC 33/40) in Birmingham, Alabama:
The fourth “must-run” segment, featuring Pence, aired on July 25 and July 26. In it, Pence again made the case for Kavanaugh, telling Epshteyn that Kavanaugh is “a man of integrity, with a lifetime of calling to public service as a family man, a man of faith,” and “the most qualified person in America to fill that seat on the Supreme Court.” Epshteyn nodded in agreement and then ended the segment by asserting, “Judge Brett Kavanaugh is fully qualified to be on the Supreme Court. Democrats in the Senate should not let partisanship cloud their judgement, and they should give Judge Brett Kavanaugh fair consideration.”
Here is the full segment, as aired on KRNV (NBC 4) in Reno, Nevada:
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Pence: “It is striking to me some days when I see the way the media is critical of this president”
Sinclair Broadcast Group’s latest “must-run” segment is basically just a platform for Vice President Mike Pence to list what he thinks are the Trump administration’s accomplishments and passively whine about media being too “critical.”
The latest “Bottom Line With Boris” segment, posted online today, is another excerpt from Sinclair chief political analyst Boris Epshteyn’s recent exclusive interview with Pence. The roughly 90-second segment is mostly Pence just listing what he calls the administration’s “record of success." Epshteyn does not ask a question in the clip, but does nod along in agreement.
BORIS EPSHTEYN: The relationship between the White House and most of the media is anything but productive. I recently sat down with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss how the administration is treated by the press. Here’s what he said.
[BEGIN INTERVIEW CLIP]
MIKE PENCE: You know, I've always said that if you're in public life, criticism comes with the territory. But I have to tell you, it is striking to me some days when I see the way the media is critical of this president. I mean, think of what we've accomplished in just a year and a half. We’re rebuilding our military. We’ve strengthened international alliances. NATO is now contributing more than ever before to our common defense. The president stood strong against the regime in North Korea and now North Korea is no longer testing ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons and has come to the peace table. At home, the president's cut taxes across the board, rolled back federal regulation and the economy has taken off, and we've been appointing strong conservatives to our courts at every level. It is a record of success that is benefiting everyday Americans, creating jobs and opportunities. And yet it seems like there's a preoccupation by some in the media -- not all -- to always focus on the negative or always focus on criticism.
[END INTERVIEW CLIP]
EPSHTEYN: Here’s the bottom line: The Trump administration has to focus on continuing to achieve success for the American people. And that way, the results will speak for themselves. It is then the responsibility of the press to report the facts to people at home.
This is the latest entry in Sinclair’s conservative programming playbook, which mirrors former CEO Roger Ailes’ propaganda strategy at Fox News for decades -- to convince the audience that one conservative outlet is the only source they can trust for news. Sinclair’s message is particularly dangerous because of the company’s numerous direct ties to the Trump administration and its ability to reach unsuspecting local news viewers across the country by co-opting the trustworthiness of actual local reporters. In one extreme example, this spring, Sinclair required local anchors at its news stations to narrate promotional segments decrying “biased and false news” in Trumpian terms.
Epshteyn has frequently claimed the media is biased against Trump and attacked specific outlets and reporters -- in particular, CNN. He has also interviewed GOP officials about purported “media bias” in the past, including White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Texas Rep. Lamar Smith. And in one of the first “must-run” segments Epshteyn hosted, in June 2017, he argued that regular White House press briefings had become “a circus and a distraction.”
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Pence on corporation-friendly tax cuts: “President Trump has been delivering on his promise: to cut taxes for working families”
Vice President Mike Pence has joined a growing list of Trump administration officials benefiting from softball interviews with Sinclair Broadcast Group.
On July 24, part of Pence’s sit-down interview with Sinclair chief political analyst and former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn was shared online.
In this latest “Bottom Line With Boris” segment, Epshteyn and Pence discuss how “President Trump has been delivering on his promise: to cut taxes for working families and businesses” thanks to the Republican tax overhaul known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. In reality, the legislation predominantly benefited large corporations, and wages have actually fallen by 1.8 percent since the cuts were enacted. Epshteyn does not mention this in the segment, but rather asks the sorts of vague questions that set Pence up to use the interview as an infomercial for Trump and the Republican party.
Here is a full transcript and video.
BORIS EPSHTEYN: I joined Vice President Mike Pence on his trip to Philadelphia this week. He focused on tax reform. Here’s what he had to say.
MIKE PENCE: As you look at this economy, confidence is back, jobs are coming back. In a real sense, America is back, and it’s because President Trump has been delivering on his promise: to cut taxes for working families and businesses.
EPSHTEYN: Where do you see the job market going in the next six months, a year, two years?
PENCE: Well, 3.7 million new jobs is an extraordinary amount of progress, but the fact of the matter is there [are] still many Americans that are on the sidelines. But the encouraging news, Boris, is that in the last month the unemployment number nationally ticked up a little bit.
PENCE: But that was because more Americans were now looking for jobs across the country. And so making sure that we continue to make these tax cuts permanent, that we continue to roll back red tape, but that we also make sure that Americans who are now looking for work have the training, the vocational education, and the skills to fill those good-paying jobs that are open now.
EPSHTEYN: You’re criss-crossing the country ahead of the midterms. So important. How vital of a role is tax reform playing in your message while you’re out there?
PENCE: To continue to move the nation forward, we’ve got to have partners. We’ve got to have renewed Republican majorities in the House and in the Senate that will work with us as we drive for more tax reform, roll back more federal red tape, and have an energy policy that puts America first. So we’re out there telling the story and it’s a great story to tell.
[END OF INTERVIEW CLIP]
EPSHTEYN: Here's the bottom line: The historic tax cuts signed by President Trump into law in December are going to continue to be a key agenda item for the Republican Party heading into November. Expect to hear a lot about the tax cuts on the campaign trail throughout the country.
This interview segment will now air as “must-run” content on more than 100 Sinclair-owned and -operated local TV news stations across the country. As of publication, a Media Matters search of the iQ media database shows the segment has already aired in at least 20 states. There will be at least one more excerpt from the interview released as an additional segment in the coming days -- according to Epshteyn’s newsletter, the next Pence segment will focus on Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
The fawning Pence interview is just the latest entry in a long list of friendly connections between Sinclair and the Trump inner circle. Sinclair has previously aired softball segments with at least six other administration officials, as well as Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Hours after the Pence segment was first posted online, President Donald Trump tweeted a defense of Sinclair, signaling displeasure with a recent and surprising Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to send Sinclair’s proposed acquisition of Tribune Media to its likely doom. Trump tweeted that an even larger Sinclair “would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People.” Had the deal been approved, pro-Trump propaganda like these interviews would have reached more than seven in 10 American TV households.
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