When Deadspin’s video showcasing dozens of local news anchors whose stations were owned by Sinclair went viral, it took social media by storm. The video served as a stark characterization of the unprecedented level of control a nakedly partisan pro-Trump, far-right wing media company had over local news stations. This complete unilateral control almost certainly could not have been accomplished without allies in the FCC and by extension the White House. The deal with Sinclair and the actions taken by Trump and Sinclair could not have been unnoticed by society. The proposed Sinclair/Tribune merger is brash, bold and shamelessly authoritarian.
In fact, the level of transparency in regards to the Trump administration and securing friendly pro-Trump coverage has been so shamelessly brazen that Jared Kushner was observed bragging to Manhattan business executives about striking deals with Sinclair for “straighter coverage.”. Protest and public anger in response to the FCC and the Trump administration could not have gone unnoticed by those controlling the levers of power. However societal backlash has only so much effect when a corporation has been able to successfully consolidate the market and control the regulators who are supposed to prevent this level of vertical integration.
Actions conducted by the FCC can be seen as offshoots of de-regulatory actions taken by the FCC in regards to talk radio in the Reagan era. In 1949 the FCC created the Fairness Doctrine. The idea was to protect free speech by implementing a protection for differing voices not having access to the airwaves. The fairness doctrine was seen as a protection for the public’s airwaves. Congress amended the communications act in 1959, making a principle of the Fairness Doctrine into law. This meant equal airtime for those seeking office had to be provided. Exceptions could be recognized, but principles of sharing conflicting views on controversial issues was a pillar of the revision.
The doctrine did face some opposition. Critics claimed that enforcing equal airtime was an infringement of the First Amendment. In 1969 The Supreme Court sided with the Doctrine in, Red Lion Broadcasting company vs The FCC. The FCC changed its tune in 1985, FCC Chairman Mark Fowler, appointed by Ronald Reagan, led a campaign to deregulate the Fairness Doctrine. Reagan also vetoed legislation that would have made the Fairness Doctrine law. Following this, the airwaves were no longer viewed as a publicly owned good that obligated high levels of responsibility, but another industry and one now free to focus on ratings and maximizing revenue.
Now in modern day, critics of the Sinclair/Tribune merger are stating that Sinclair is selling stations to partner companies in order to navigate around laws limiting broadcast ownership. An example of this is the sale of flagship Tribune station WGN-TV in Chicago to an automobile executive Steven Fader. Sinclair Executive Chairman David Smith and Fader are longtime business associates.
The current layout of the FCC, led by former Verizon lawyer Ajit Pai, has been structured in a way to provide market dominance to the largest corporations involved in media and electronic communications including but not limited to internet service providers with the scrapping of Net Neutrality protections. A prime example of this new FCC direction is the reinstating of the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) discount. This obsolete UHF discount facilitates Sinclair’s navigation around the 39 percent cap on national audience reach. Under the UHF discount, media companies are legally allowed to count ultra high frequency stations in half. The original justification for the UHF discount when it was implemented by the 1985 FCC was that it countered the lower audience reach of ultra high frequency. However, since the movement on to digital television ultra high frequency stations received placement on cable and satellite, thus negating any disadvantages ultra high frequency stations may have faced in the past. Sinclair was counting on the FCC acting in this manner to be able to move forward on the Sinclair-Tribune merger.
As of July 18th, 2018 the FCC chairman Ajit Pai has recently expressed some concerns over the merger, which could be an indication that the brakes may be pushed in regards to the Sinclair/Tribune merger. However considering Ajit Pai spearheaded the charge to remove the Net Neutrality consumer protections, his willingness to regulate on behalf of public interest is fair to question. Attorneys General in Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have condemned the Sinclair/Tribune merger. The condemnation is based on the grounds that the media consolidation will be damaging to consumers because it is destroying competition.