Trump’s secret weapon for 2020 keeps quietly gathering steam

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

If you live in a midsize city in a battleground state, you are more likely than ever to see pro-Trump propaganda on your local news by next election season -- thanks to conservative media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Trump administration itself.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) quietly voted along party lines to eliminate its “main studio rule,” which mandated that local news stations maintain offices within the communities they serve. Without the main studio rule, Sinclair is free to consolidate and centralize local news resources in its roughly 190 stations across the country, eliminating the “local” element of local news as much as possible.

This move is just the latest in a thriving symbiotic relationship between the openly conservative Sinclair and the Trump FCC, a relationship that seems to benefit all parties but the American public. And there’s more to come.

Sinclair is known for its history of injecting right-wing spin into local newscasts, most notably with its nationally produced “must-run” commentary segments. The segments, which all Sinclair-owned and operated news stations are required to air, include (frequently embarrassing) pro-Trump propaganda missives from former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, rants about “politically correct” culture from former Sinclair exec Mark Hyman, and fearmongering “Terrorism Alert Desk” segments that seem to largely focus on just about anything Muslims do.

Just yesterday, for example, as news broke of the federal indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and campaign staffer Rick Gates and the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos for lying to the FBI during its investigation into Russian meddling -- making it  perhaps the worst day in Trump’s presidency so far -- Sinclair was airing a “Bottom Line With Boris” segment in which Epshteyn asserted that impending Republican tax reform was contributing to a soaring stock market benefiting all Americans.

As it stands, Sinclair is broadcasting segments like these on stations across 34 states and the District of Columbia, particularly in local media markets for suburbs and mid-sized cities from Maine to California. The news behemoth is now awaiting FCC approval of its acquisition of Tribune Media, which would allow Sinclair to further spread its propaganda in the country’s top media markets, reaching nearly three-quarters of U.S. households. If last week’s actions are any indication of the five FCC commissioners’ adherence to party lines, the FCC seal of approval for this deal is pretty much a sure thing thanks to its current Republican majority.

Even before Trump won the election, Sinclair had aligned itself with him by reportedly striking a deal for greater press access to the then-candidate in exchange for better coverage. And since Trump took office and appointed a conservative FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, the agency has taken significant action to loosen its rules in ways that just so happen to allow Sinclair to further solidify its power.

In April, the commission voted to reinstate an outdated rule known as “the UHF discount,” which first cleared the way for Sinclair to purchase Tribune Media. The FCC prohibits major broadcasters like Sinclair from owning TV stations “that collectively reach more than 39 percent” of U.S. households -- but the UHF discount allowed entities to skirt this regulation by giving certain stations less weight when calculating this cap, based on outdated technology considerations. The discount was eliminated in 2016, but the FCC under Trump quickly moved to reinstate the outdated rule, making Sinclair’s anticipated expansion possible.

The FCC is now also making moves to relax its existing local media ownership caps, a proposal that would allow Sinclair to own more than one of the top four television news stations in certain local media markets. Currently, Sinclair uses existing loopholes to effectively control the operations of more than one top station by entering into news share agreements with other owners. In Sioux City, IA, for example, Sinclair owns the Fox affiliate, KPTH, and operates the CBS affiliate, KMEG, through a “joint services agreement” with KMEG’s owner. The stations are branded together as “Siouxland News” and now share a website, headquarters, and news staff. The new FCC proposal, which will be voted on in November, would eliminate all the extra hassle involved in structuring sharing agreements like this one, letting Sinclair cut right to the chase and own multiple top local stations outright. This would especially help Sinclair as it finalizes its purchase of Tribune Media, leaving the broadcasting giant free to acquire new stations in its existing markets without having to worry about selling off any station properties to comply with FCC rules.

The same proposal would also relax FCC regulations that cap media market ownership across television and radio platforms. Sinclair’s 2015 acquisition of its own digital media and mobile news platform, Circa -- a serial news misinformer in its own right -- and recent rumors that it’s exploring a partnership with serial sexual predator Bill O’Reilly hint that the broadcasting company is looking for new ways to deliver conservative news. These FCC changes would certainly permit Sinclair to experiment with consolidating resources at local news stations and redirecting those resources into newer, covert avenues to add right-wing spin to newscasts.

We know that voters continue to trust local news more than national sources. Sinclair and the Trump FCC are working in tandem to exploit that trust with greater precision and power than ever before -- just in time for the 2018 and 2020 elections.