Unless you’ve been holed up in a cave somewhere outside of Abbottabad for the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen it. I’m talking about the viral video of local TV anchors at stations from coast to coast that are all owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group — uttering a warning about “fake news” that sounds as if it were ripped directly from President Trump’s Twitter feed and then read aloud by those animatronic figures from Walt Disney World.
“The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media,” read the uncomfortable-looking news folks from Maine to Oregon and dozens of cities in between. “Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias.” Still, the bizarre editorial about the state of American journalism probably would have remained one of those small “inside baseball” stories among media and politics junkies, were it not for an enterprising, not-zombie journalist from the website Deadspin who compiled much of the uncomfortably robotic footage into one remarkable video.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) March 31, 2018
“This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” That’s not me saying that, but a quote from Sinclair’s anchors, in a message that takes on a very different meaning in the Deadspin video as newspeople from Peoria to Kalamazoo repeat it again and again and again and again. The great debate, of course, is whether the actual danger to democracy comes from “fake news” and biased journalism, or from a centralized, billionaire-owned media conglomerate using its power of ownership to become a kind of state-run media on behalf of an aspiring autocrat in the White House.
Up until now, people in Philadelphia have watched the Sinclair controversy from afar. That could change very soon. Lawyers at the Justice Department and regulators at the Federal Communications Commission are believed to be just days away from decisions that could allow the Maryland-based Sinclair — which currently either owns or operates a whopping 173 local TV stations — to acquire an iconic Philadelphia channel, PHL17, which now is home to the Mummers Parade and an occasional Phillies game but could be home to robo-propaganda in time for 2018’s midterm elections. PHL17 is just one of 42 stations now owned by Tribune Media that Sinclair is trying to buy for $3.9 billion, pending approval from its friends in the Trump administration.
Sinclair Broadcast Group is owned by a longtime backer of conservative causes, David Smith — which makes it no different from scores of other media companies, including TV stations and newspapers, across America. What has been unusual, however, about Sinclair and its slow, decades-long ascent to become — with little fanfare, before now — the leader in ownership of local TV channels is its increasing reliance on “must-run” programming that comes from the home office and that reflects the strong political ideology of its owners.
For most of the history of broadcast television, local news has been exactly that: local. The latest outrage at City Hall. A particularly grisly hometown murder (because “if it bleeds, it leads“) or a ribbon-cutting at a new employer, larded with heavy doses of whether it’s going to snow tomorrow and just how badly your local sports team is doing. This format flourished during a half-century in which American couch potatoes most frequently cited TV as their main source of news — so what better way to keep a local community (and its voters) well-informed.
Sinclair blows that format up by taking large chunks of limited airtime that could be dedicated to the doings of your city council or school board and turning it over to the kind of national political punditry you can also find on cable — especially, considering the right-wing slant, the Fox News Channel. The practices are not new — Sinclair first entered the political lexicon when its stations aired a hit piece on John Kerry right before the 2004 election, and Sinclair’s bizarre “Terrorism Alert Desk” exists to keep its viewers scared — but they’ve accelerated as Trump arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In December 2016, Trump son-in-law and now senior adviser Jared Kushner made the shocking (to some) acknowledgment that the Trump campaign gave Sinclair access in return for favorable coverage. Sinclair officials denied that was anything unusual or nefarious, but not long after Trump became president the TV company hired a pro-Trump zealot and former aide, Boris Epshteyn, to air “must-run” commentaries on its stations. That teed things up for the recent, headquarters-ordered commentaries on “fake news” that so closely followed the attack script from Trump’s frenzied rallies.
What does Sinclair get out of all this? Behind the scenes, the FCC — led by the chairman appointed by Trump, Ajit Pai — has been working overtime to change the rules to make it easier for one company (like … [checks notes] … Sinclair Broadcast Group) to accumulate more than one TV station in a single market, while obliterating long-standing caps on how many stations one firm can own. Indeed, Pai’s alleged favoritism toward Sinclair is currently the subject of an inspector general’s investigation that was requested by two Democratic members of Congress.
The FCC’s sleazy pro-Sinclair maneuvering is what really matters here — and it’s not for the reason that some readers might think. There should be room for conservative media in this country, and clearly — from Fox News to Breitbart to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal — that space now exists. And no one would be complaining if, say, PHL17 wanted to invite your friendly local conservatives like Christine Flowers or Dom Giordano on air for the occasional op-ed.
But the reason we have an FCC is because the airwaves are limited — and so they should belong to the people. The deal has always been that in order to get a slice of that bandwidth, broadcasters pledge to air local news and voices from the community — exactly the opposite of what Sinclair does and what Pai’s FCC is signing off on. One central voice giving its centralized marching orders through a slew of not-really-local-anymore stations smacks of televised fascism, regardless of whether the president is named Donald Trump or Merkin Muffley. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.
And the Sinclair scandal isn’t just about Sinclair. Local news — on TV, on the radio, and especially in print — is in a state of crisis right now, and not necessarily for all the reasons you think. Sure, the rise of the internet and the changes in both reader habits and advertiser spending underlie the current state of chaos.
But check out what’s happening at the Denver Post, a beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization that’s lost most of its staff — and, thus, its ability to hold local officials accountable — because its vulture capitalist hedge-fund owner has siphoned out its profits to spend on money-losing deals that have nothing to do with journalism. The weak economy for every kind of local media has opened the door for these giant predatory conglomerates to acquire vast empires to spread propaganda (Sinclair) or suck out dollars (Alden Global Capital, the Post’s owner) or both. It sounds Orwellian — because it is.
Since this photo was taken in May 2013, The Denver Post newsroom staff has been cut by more than half as Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that owns the paper, rakes in massive profits. Learn more at https://t.co/jkhi00ATnX #AldenExposed pic.twitter.com/9f8xG8qZ86
— Denver News Guild (@DenverGuild) March 26, 2018
That said, Sinclair’s hostile takeover of the American media landscape is not a done deal. As awareness and opposition mount, there are reports that Trump’s regulators are wavering on the Tribune merger that would include the PHL17 takeover here. In other words, there’s an opportunity for people to take back those airwaves, if we speak up.
“The politics are changing fast — two weeks ago Sinclair was not a national story (despite all the coverage) and now it is,” Craig Aaron, CEO of the nonprofit group Free Press that fights media consolidation, told me by email this week. “So if nothing else there is now more time to fight this deal — because I can’t imagine the regulators want to rush it through while there is so much scrutiny and attention.”
Aaron noted that citizens opposed to the runaway growth of Sinclair and the sale of PHL17 here in Philadelphia can sign an online petition like this one hosted by Free Press to record opposition to the deal with the FCC. In addition, he urged contacting your local member of Congress to demand hearings on the FCC moves to allow Sinclair to gobble up so many stations — and also to make media consolidation a front-burner issue on the midterm elections. Share the Deadspin video with your friends and family, he said, and — worst-case scenario — consider contacting PHL17’s advertisers, if the sale is approved, to let them know how you feel about Sinclair.
It’s definitely too important of an issue for Philadelphia to take too lightly. And here’s the irony: It was pretty creepy to hear all of those Sinclair anchors reciting the exact same script, edited in unison. But if citizens speak together in one voice, that we want local journalism from our local stations — well, that could sound quite beautiful.