Although many people may not even realize it, President Donald Trump is using the power of the government to enable further corporate consolidation of the public airwaves, a takeover by a pro-Trump media company with the ability to disseminate “fake news” and broadcast propaganda to most U.S. homes. If this arrangement is allowed to pass, the rise of Sinclair Broadcasting — the potential beneficiary of this new deal with Trump — would have significant and sweeping implications for the future of democracy, whose voices will or will not be heard in the media, and the further division of the country based on racial and ideological lines. This, in an already consolidated media landscape.
The notion of Trump — the leader of the government — contracting with and rewarding his favorite media company, and changing the FCC rules so that company becomes the industry giant in order to disseminate his propaganda, is problematic. Sinclair is receiving undue influence by the government for its support of the president. While this may not amount to official and overt state propaganda, it is the closest America has come to flirting with the type of “managed media” taking place in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and elsewhere. The blurring of the lines between the public interest and the self-aggrandizement of a ruler is a mainstay of dictatorships and something to which Americans are not accustomed. Think Fox News and Breitbart, but with potentially more power, influence and reach.
At issue is a loophole that Trump’s Federal Communications Commission is exploiting to allow Sinclair to gobble up local TV stations across the nation and create a media giant that would broadcast pro-Trump propaganda to most U.S homes. Sinclair is a conservative media company that acts as a cheerleader for Trump, pushing his ideology and policies on local television stations. Trump’s FCC Chair, Ajit Pai, is availing himself of an old loophole to allow Sinclair to control a proportion of the television landscape that was previously disallowed under FCC rules. The loophole, known as the “UHF discount,” was an obsolete rule that gave leeway to UHF stations, those stations higher than channel 13, which had lower budgets, poorer reception and whose market share was not calculated the same as VHF stations. In the digital era in which antennas have been eliminated, UHF and VHF stations have no meaning. While the congressionally-mandated national audience cap for any one television broadcasting company was 39 percent of American households, Sinclair will be allowed to nearly double the federally-approved limit with 72 percent, as Politico reported.
The nation’s largest broadcaster you’ve never heard of, Sinclair owns more than 170 local TV stations. With its planned merger with Tribune Media, it will buy 42 additional stations in major markets such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, allowing it to insert “must-run” biased and debunked conservative content into its local programming, mostly newscasts.
Sinclair had given “a disproportionate amount of neutral or favorable coverage” to Trump during the presidential campaign, according to the Washington Post. Politico had reported that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, boasted the Trump campaign had struck a deal with Sinclair for better media coverage. Earlier this year, Sinclair hired Boris Epshteyn, a Trump surrogate and former White House aide, as a political analyst.
The $3.9 billion Sinclair-Tribune deal has met opposition from opponents of media consolidation, Democratic lawmakers and progressive advocacy groups such as Allied Progress, but also conservative media outlets such as Newsmax and One America, who have filed FCC complaints on the grounds that the merger is not in the interests of consumers. After all, conservative media, even those who may agree with Trump on much of his policies, have much to lose with unfair competition, at worst a monopoly that stands to control much of the broadcast media market. “This transaction creates an unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of one broadcaster while setting the stage for other television broadcast networks to amass similar market penetration,” read the Newsmax petition to the FCC. “The Federal Communications Commission is seeking to enable this transaction through regulatory sleight of hand, an approach that will end decades of bipartisan consensus on the importance of limiting television broadcast networks’ market reach and, consequently, their influence and power.”
“Utilizing the ‘UHF discount,’ which is an antiquated, irrelevant regulation, is really politics at its worst,” said One America CEO Charles Herring.
“Regardless of political affiliation, we should agree that robust democracy demands a variety of viewpoints from a myriad of sources; yet, the Sinclair/Tribune merger threatens this core value,” read a letter from Glenn Beck’s The Blaze to the chairs of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees.
“We respect the hard work of local news reporters, editors and producers, and have deep concerns about Sinclair’s corporate governance and the overtly partisan programming they require stations to run,” said Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress in a letter to Sinclair and Tribune employees.
“In its filing at the FCC, Free Press shows that Sinclair has failed to demonstrate any public-interest benefits from the proposed deal,” media watchdog group Free Press said in its challenge to the Sinclair deal. “The filing also explains how Sinclair requires its local stations to air regular segments featuring racist and Islamophobic rhetoric as well as biased commentary from a former Trump campaign official. Sinclair’s takeover of Tribune would cause irreparable harms to communities across the nation that depend on diverse, competitive local broadcast stations for news and information.”
Already, President Trump has close ties with conservative media. Throughout the campaign season and into his administration, Trump has enjoyed favorable coverage from conservative news outlets such as Fox News, Breitbart and others. Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House chief strategist, was CEO of Breitbart, the online news site known for its alt-right and white nationalist leanings. One of Breitbart’s editors proclaimed that their goal is the “elimination of the entire mainstream media.” Other Breitbart staffers have made their way to the Trump administration as well, as the administration has favored conservative outlets, and has shunned reporters critical of him, at times banning outlets such as CNN, BBC, The Guardian, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Politico and Buzzfeed from press briefings.
Further media consolidation, with one corporate giant with a hard-right political ideology owning the lion’s share of market penetration as the nation’s largest broadcaster, is a threat to democracy and a diversity of viewpoints. Politicians, policy makers, journalists, commentators, advocates, ordinary people and communities alike make use of the press to sway opinion and influence the passage of laws. In the early 1980s, 50 corporations owned the majority of the U.S. media. Today — thanks to Bill Clinton signing the Telecommunications Act of 1996, resulting in an onslaught of mergers — 90 percent of America’s media companies are owned by six corporations — Viacom, News Corporation, Comcast, CBS, Time Warner and Disney. Control of the media in the hands of a handful of companies means that certain issues will be hidden from public view, underrepresented voices silenced and excluded. A few people will decide what to tell you, how much to tell you, and from whose (their own) perspective.
However, when the head of government pays back his friends by helping them expand their media empire to the detriment of other competitors, to Trump’s own benefit and not the public good, that is antithetical to the concept of a free press. With his average favorability rating under 38 percent in recent polls, and his job approval eroding even among uneducated whites at 43 percent, Trump has an opportunity. By manipulating the rules of broadcast ownership, Trump can seize the reins on his message and its dissemination by controlling the vehicles that deliver his message. A showman who manufactured an image of himself as a brilliant self-made titan of business, real estate magnate and an expert deal maker, Trump effectively manipulated media messaging in the 2016 election, among other factors, appealing to low-information white voters. One can only imagine what Trump, the president who receives positive propaganda about himself twice a day, can do in partnership with Sinclair as his propaganda arm. Perhaps he can overcome his low approval through media manipulation, but then again, perhaps it does not matter how high a dictator’s favorability ratings are when he controls the media and can spin his own image. It does not take a leap of imagination, moreover, to assume that Sinclair — as the propaganda arm of a president who rose to power through Birtherism, white revanchism, and continues to thrive on the narrative of white victimhood — would express views unfavorable to Black people and the issues of concern to them, or ignore their concerns outright.
All of this comes amid an environment of declining Black media ownership, and fewer opportunities to own their own companies and tell their own stories. An FCC report (pdf) found that whites owned 1,070 television stations in 2013, 77 percent of the stations. Latinos owned 42 stations, Asians owned 19, Native Americans owned 11, and African-Americans owned only nine, down from 11 two years earlier.
“Whoever control the media, controls the mind.” as Jim Morrison said. With the rise of Sinclair, Trump may be on the verge of controlling more than the government.