The Donald Trump-backing Sinclair Broadcast Group’s pending $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media, creating a local television station cartel of unprecedented power and reach, has triggered a mind-meld of liberals and conservatives that would otherwise have been unthinkable in the present era of polarized politics.
The result is a possibly heartening (and, let’s face it, bizarre) alliance between the usual suspects—that is, left-leaning public interest groups and elected Democrats who’d be expected to oppose any such merger—and right-leaning media outlets such as Christopher Ruddy’s Newsmax, the San Diego-based Herring family’s One America News, Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, and even the hard-right former House Republican Majority Leader, Tom “The Hammer” DeLay.
“Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the conservative perspective of Sinclair, and support its First Amendment right to espouse its views,” DeLay wrote in a recent Politico op-ed titled “Why Trump Should Block the Sinclair Merger.”
This would be a highly unlikely outcome given the president’s recent tweet: “So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased. Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
Still, DeLay added, “This transaction would set a terrible precedent by opening the door for ABC, CBS, and NBC to also buy many more TV stations. At that point, nothing can stop liberal Northeast corporate executives from telling homes in the heartland what to think.”
Merger opponent Ruddy, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast: “It’s going to give them enormous reach—70 percent of the country—and it’s going to dwarf anything else in scale that’s on cable news or any of the major TV networks right now. And it’s a danger to not only liberals but also to Republicans and conservatives.
"Trump campaigned against media concentration of power—that was his line. OK, Sinclair is favorable to Trump, but now you’re going to have three or four A-level competitors like NBC, ABC and CBS that are going to be doing it, and it will be very bad and dangerous for everyone.”
One America News president Charles Herring—who has joined two dozen other organizations, including nominally progressive groups such as Common Cause and the Latino Victory Fund—to fight the merger, said last year during a conference call with reporters: “The real concern here is: When you have an entity with excessive, unbalanced power in the marketplace, which Sinclair arguably has now, the market doesn’t work.”
Herring predicted that Sinclair’s increased post-merger clout would allow the company to gouge cable carriers for retransmission rights for their local stations’ broadcasts—an upcharge to be passed on to consumers. “They’re able to ask for ask for excessive rates currently for their broadcast services,” Herring complained.
In an email to The Daily Beast on Thursday, Herring added that the merger would allow Sinclair to use valuable local broadcast spectrum—awarded free of charge by the federal government “to provide a service for the public good, namely LOCAL news coverage and programming”—to cobble together what is essentially a national network.
“If Sinclair wants to ACT like a national cable news channel, it should be required to transmit via the same means as Fox News Network, CNN, MSNBC, One America News, and others, and NOT utilize government broadcast spectrum that was provided for LOCAL news and programming,” Herring emailed.
Sinclair officials declined to comment to The Daily Beast.
Democratic Rep. David Price, a Duke University political science professor who represents North Carolina’s academic and research triangle of Raleigh-Durham, shares DeLay’s, Ruddy’s and Herring’s opposition to the merger—but for different reasons.
“When you think about an issue like this, there is just no escaping the reckless and irresponsible conduct of Donald Trump toward the media, and it takes place on so many fronts,” said Price, who has co-authored legislation to block Sinclair’s expansion, as well as a measure to overturn last year’s Trump Federal Communications Commission ruling—itself a reversal of previous FCC policy—that allows Sinclair to discount its dozens of UHF stations as equivalent to 50 percent of the company-owned VHF stations in calculating its ownership reach.
“This is incredible, I think—the daily rants, this ‘fake news’ mantra. We can’t ever assume that is normal or acceptable,” Price told The Daily Beast. “It’s corrosive, and to the extent large numbers of our fellow citizens come to believe this, it is very dangerous.”
Price cited the recent controversy in which Sinclair executives ordered their stations’ local anchors around the country to recite a less-than-veiled endorsement of Trump’s attacks on “biased” journalists, scripted at corporate headquarters in suburban Baltimore.
In case anyone was confused, Sinclair’s pugnacious executive chairman, David Smith, boasted this week to the Guardian that in 2016, when he paid his respects to the then-GOP nominee at Trump Tower, he assured the future president: “We are here to deliver your messages.”
“That the Sinclair outlets would be giving that aid and comfort, with the talking points we’ve seen, and the must-run segments and all the rest, is alarming,” Price said. “This is really taking place at a critical time when I think we need to stand up for a free and independent media.”
In recent weeks, Price has enjoyed the unusual experience of being welcomed more than once on One America News—hardly a political bedfellow—to bash the merger.
Still, he has failed so far to persuade any Republican House member to take the risk of antagonizing Sinclair—and President Trump—by signing on as a co-sponsor of his legislation, and he acknowledged that the chances are “virtually nil” that the GOP leadership will schedule it for a vote.
By most accounts, the skids are greased for FCC and Justice Department approval of the transaction, which will allow Sinclair to own—and control the content of—more than 200 stations broadcasting to 72 percent of the country, a stunning breach of the long-established and congressionally-mandated 39 percent ownership cap that the Trump FCC is moving rapidly to invalidate.
The irony, of course, is that the Trump administration is currently suing AT&T, in an ongoing trial in federal court, to prevent the telecomm giant’s arguably less monopolistic merger with Time Warner, the parent company of Trump’s least favorite cable network, CNN.
Meanwhile, the FCC’s Trump-appointed chairman, Ajit Pai—a former Verizon in-house counsel, whose possibly improper contacts with Sinclair executives and White House officials in advance of the merger are currently under investigation by the agency’s inspector general—has championed several rule changes that seem specifically designed to advantage Sinclair and facilitate the Tribune Media purchase.
“Chairman Pai not only bent over backward to help Sinclair, he bent over forward,” merger foe and Washington lobbyist David Goodfriend, a former Clinton White House staff secretary, cheekily told The Daily Beast. “He’s been unbelievably gracious and giving.”
Along with removing the costly requirement that local stations maintain a studio in their service areas (a waiver that allows Sinclair to save money on infrastructure and anchor salaries by programing newscasts for far-flung cities from corporate headquarters), Pai also reinstated the UHF discount—the legacy of a long-ago era, before 85 percent of the country was wired for cable and satellite, when weak-signaled UHF stations were “the red-headed stepchild of broadcasting,” as Obama-era FCC chairman Tom Wheeler put it.
Yet after the FCC mandated that television stations be all-digital by 2009, it turned out the ultra-high-frequency signal was no longer second-best to VHF, but rather the superior transmitter of high-definition digital broadcasting.
“Chairman Pai has held himself out as someone who believes that technology is changing fast, and markets are going to be impacted by changes in technology,” said Goodfriend, an attorney and Georgetown University adjunct law professor who served as an FCC legal adviser during the 1990s. “And yet, when it came to Sinclair Broadcasting, he was willing to turn the clock back to the analog era and restore the UHF discount, which is right up there with the brontosaurus and the passenger pigeon in terms of extinction.”
Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Pai’s immediate predecessor, recalled that when he ran the commission during President Obama’s second term, and Pai was (ironically) one of Obama’s designated Republican appointees , “he voted against everything I did as chairman. Believe me,” Wheeler told The Daily Beast, “I could earn a living trying to interpret Ajit Pai. I have no idea what’s going through his head.”
The former chairman recalled that Pai even opposed his efforts to stop Sinclair’s “really slick maneuver” to undercount the company’s station ownership in individual markets by putting a station’s license in the name of David Smith’s mother—a so-called “joint service agreement” under which Sinclair didn’t formally own a station or its license but operated it and received all revenue and profits.
Pai’s FCC press secretary, Tina Pelkey, pushed back on the accusation that her boss has been unusually accommodating toward Sinclair.
“Given that the FCC under Chairman Pai’s leadership proposed a $13 million fine against Sinclair, the largest fine in history for a violation of the Commission’s sponsorship identification rules, the accusation that he has shown favoritism toward the company is absurd,” Pelkey emailed.
At an off the record Washington dinner for telecommunications industry in December, Pai attempted to make light of the perceptions about him—joking that that the FCC was relocating to Trump Tower and quipping: "People ask me, 'what keeps you up at night?' and it's actually pretty easy: the thought of the FCC having to resolve a retransmission dispute between Verizon and Sinclair. I mean, how do you choose between a longtime love and your newfound crush?"
Pai is best known, notorious actually, for his decisive role last December in ending the Obama administration policy of net neutrality, thus permitting behemoth broadband internet service providers like Pai’s former employer, Verizon, to charge premiums for access to certain websites and to slow down or even block access for consumers who don’t fork over.
Pai’s eradication of net neutrality earned him the epithet “jackhole” during an angry Jimmy Kimmel monologue.
“Considering the strong case for modernizing these rules,” Pelkey told The Daily Beast, “it's not surprising that those who disagree with him would prefer to launch ad hominem personal attacks and otherwise do whatever they can to distract from the merits of the reforms that the FCC has adopted.”
Tom DeLay, meanwhile, noted acidly in his Politico essay: “By giving Sinclair a free pass, Trump’s DOJ would be gifting AT&T’s lawyers with a powerful argument that DOJ’s selective enforcement is not only arbitrary but also illogical: AT&T-Time Warner poses a risk to consumers and competition, but Sinclair-Tribune does not? Judge Richard J. Leon, who is overseeing the AT&T-Time Warner case, is sure to ask: ‘What’s going on here?’”
That’s a question increasingly being asked about the Sinclair-Tribune deal, especially with the inconvenient media spotlight being aimed at the Maryland company in recent days.
The latest wrinkle has the FCC haggling with Sinclair over its announced plans to conform to ownership caps in New York and Chicago, post-merger, by selling off Tribune stations there to, in the case of Chicago’s WGN-TV, a friend and business associate of David Smith’s, a car dealer named Steven Fader, and in the case of New York’s WPIX-TV, to a company controlled by the estate of Carolyn Smith Cunningham—i.e. Smith’s mother.
While nobody is predicting that the merger won’t go through, with FCC approval expected sometime this spring, Ajit Pai is under unusual scrutiny, and clearly feeling the heat—from all quarters.