21st Century Media Monopoly

The Sinclair Broadcast Group

Written by: Michelle Halpin (Diablo Valley College)

Editted by: Aimee Casey (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Nolan Higdon (California State University, East Bay)

The Sinclair Broadcast Group will soon be allowed to have a 72% reach into U.S. households due the FCC restoring an arcane rule. Corporate television media have committed ‘News Abuse’ by reporting only superficial details of the rule and the massive buyout by Sinclair. Peter Phillips coined the term News Abuse while he was director of Project Censored. The term describes newsworthy stories that are presented by corporate media in a partial, slanted or trivial way.

The coverage of the FCC rule change and subsequent purchase of Tribune Media by Sinclair Broadcast Group has been largely trivial and incomplete when it comes to corporate television news and conservative news outlets (CNN to Fox News, Newsmax to Breitbart). They primarily mention a sale happened because of an FCC change, that Sinclair will have more local reach, they will now be in a better position to negotiate ad sales, and that they will be allowed to grow again now that an FCC rule was restored after being taken away by the Obama administration. To the contrary, corporate newspaper outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post, public and independent outlets like The Economist and NPR, as well as media watchdog organizations Fair.org, Media Matters and the Institute for Public Accuracy have in-depth coverage and analysis on the overriding significance of the FCC change and the Sinclair sale—to name a few. Even USA Today and Variety provided better reporting than corporate television broadcast networks.

 

On April 20, 2017 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 2-1 to restore an FCC rule called the “UHF discount” in order to ease media ownership limits[1]. The FCC currently limits broadcast companies to a 39% national cap on households reached in their markets. With the UHF discount reinstated, for companies that broadcast in the analog UHF frequency spectrum, only 50% of the households in those markets are even counted towards the ownership cap. So why does that matter? The UHF discount was not created to birth ‘Big Media’ behemoths to consolidate the airwaves as the Institute for Public Accuracy stated.[2] The UHF discount was for a totally different purpose. It was created as a means for stations broadcasting in the low power UHF frequency range (above channel 13) to be able to compete with stations broadcasting in the higher powered VHF frequency range (channels 2 to 13). The UHF stations’ signals could only reach half as far as the VHF stations’ signals, so they received a 50% discount starting in 1985 to help them be competitive with the ‘big guys’.[3],[4],[5] However, since everything switched over to digital in 2009 the dominant analog signal is now UHF, not VHF, according to the FCC’s Quarterly report on broadcast station totals.[6] That is why the FCC finally eliminated the UHF discount last year (August 2016)—it was no longer needed for the purpose intended. Enter Sinclair Broadcast Group, already the owner of the most local news stations in the country. Just two weeks after the FCC change, Sinclair announced it would buy Tribune Media for $3.9 billion. The deal will give Sinclair, “a staggering reach of nearly 69 percent of the U.S. population when you factor in the newly-restored UHF discount,” says Michael Corcoran at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (aka FAIR.org)[7] Actually, their reach will be 72% of U.S. households if you count the smaller $420 million purchase of Bonten Media Group the day after the FCC rule change per Time per Joseph Pisani at Time.[8] They will likely need to sell at least some of their newly acquired stations, as they would be slightly over the re-calculated 39%. That is unless the Trump-appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that was wined and dined by Sinclair Broadcast Group right after Trump was elected doesn’t extend the ownership cap before then, which he’s indicated previously he’d like to consider raising[9]. The Sinclair buyout is also significant, and somewhat ominous, when you pair the FCC and buyout stories with the following (which many non-broadcast, non-conservative and media watchdog outlets did): 1.) Long time Republican donors with watch dog group Media Matters even calling them  ‘right-wing’[10]; 2.) Are known to force conservative content into its local programming (“must-runs”)[11]; 3.) One of Trump’s former spokespersons joined Sinclair this past April as a “chief political analyst”[12]; 4.) One of Trump’s son’s claimed last Fall that he’d successfully negotiated with Sinclair to get more positive and exclusive coverage of Trump during the campaign (Sinclair denied this)[13]; 5.) When Donald Trump doesn’t want to answer tough questions during White House Q&A sessions he skips corporate and independent media representatives and picks Sinclair reporters to ask questions instead; 6.) During the campaign Sinclair gave in-depth coverage and positive stories on Trump while it did not do the same for Hillary Clinton[14]; 7.) Sinclair is thought to be looking at starting a conservative news network to rival Fox News[15]. With all the aforementioned in mind, it’s clear the UHF discount should not equal Big Media growth and the consolidation of media ownership.

 

The corporate television media committed News Abuse in their coverage of the FCC change and Sinclair purchase of Tribune Media. For example, Lauren Thomas at CNBC mentioned on May 8, 2017 that some details of the sale and how it could be a headache for Fox News if they start their own station, no real coverage of the issue, just superficial information for the most part.[16] Fox Business, also on May 8, 2017, covered the sale and FCC change over three articles, covering superficial details of the sale and FCC change, etc. But one by Joe Flint also covered the motivation for Sinclair to grow in terms of them wanting to expand their cable programming and wireless business[17]. He briefly mentions they were also trying to purchase Sinclair. Conservative Newsmax writer Karl Nelson covered the story similarly on May 8, 2017 while mentioning Sinclair wants more control over distribution with the sale, the implications for Fox, and even quoting ‘fake news’ CNN in the story about the purchase coming down to an auction. These outlets and others like them similarly did not cover the significance of the FCC change and/or its relation the Sinclair beyond superficial details.

 

Corporate television news outlets and conservative news media failed to report on why the Obama-era FCC eliminated the UHF discount. They did not write about the rule being intended to allow for fair competition, nor the creation of media behemoths and definitely did not tie Sinclair to President Trump in any way. The coverage comes down to public affairs reporting versus actual journalism. Public affairs reporting does not involve investigative journalism, but rather corporate propaganda that is supportive of the organization, their industry, and/or their talking points and key messages.

 

Corporate print media, public media, non-conservative independent media and media watchdog groups really analyzed why the FCC change and Sinclair purchase were so much more than they seemed on the surface. They really connected the dots between the implications of the FCC change, Sinclair, the Trump campaign/administration, and conservative messaging forced into local news. Big Media television sources failed to scratch beyond surface details that lead one to believe that the poor corporate television broadcasters can’t succeed without some regulatory handouts.

 

Michelle Halpin is a native of Pacific Grove, California, and attends Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California. The Vallejo resident enrolled at DVC in 2015 after eleven years in the military, where she worked as a public affairs broadcast journalist (reserve) and as a public affairs operations manager (active duty). She graduated from CSU Monterey Bay in 2002 with a B.S. in Telecommunications, Multimedia and Applied Computing and is 2004 graduate of the D.o.D.’s Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland. Halpin hopes to find a job or graduate program someday that will satisfy her inner news junkie, nerdy pursuits, geek tendencies, creative juices, and love of anthropology. 

 

[1] “FCC reinstates pre-August 2016 status quo in broadcaster marketplace.” Media release, Federal Communications Commission, 20 April 2017. Web. http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db0420/DOC-344490A1.pdf (Accessed 12 May 2017)

[2] Corcoran, Michael. “Sinclair to Buy Tribune Media: “Reward from Trump Administration”?” Institute for Public Accuracy, 9 May 2017. Web. http://www.accuracy.org/release/58820/ (Accessed 12 May 2017).

[3] Yu, Roger. “FCC plans to remove rule limiting TV station ownership.” USA Today, 30 March 2017. Web. https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/03/30/report-fcc-revise-broadcast-ownership-rule/99816092/ (Accessed 12 May 2017)

[4] Flint, Joe. “FCC proposes eliminating UHF discount from TV ownership rules.” Los Angeles Times, 26 September 2013. Web. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/sep/26/entertainment/la-et-ct-fcc-uhf-discount-20130926 (Accessed 12 May 2017)

[5] Johnson, Ted. “FCC Eases Media Ownership Restrictions in Vote to Restore UHF Discount.” Variety, 20 April 2017. Web. http://variety.com/2017/biz/news/fcc-reinstates-uhf-discount-media-ownership-1202391206/ (Accessed 13 May 2017)

[6] “Broadcast station totals as of March 31, 2017.” Quarterly report, Federal Trade Commission. 11 April 2017. Web. https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-344256A1.pdf (Accessed 13 May 2017)

[7] Corcoran, Michael. “Trump Uses Power of FCC to Pay Back Friends at Sinclair Broadcasting.” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, 8 May 2017. Web. http://fair.org/home/trump-uses-power-of-fcc-to-pay-back-friends-at-sinclair-broadcasting/ (Accessed 12 May 2017)

[8] Pisani, Joseph. “Sinclair Broadcasting Group Buys Tribune Media for $3.9 Billion.” Time, 8 May 2017. Web. http://time.com/4771281/sinclair-tribune-media/ (Accessed 13 May 2017)

[9] Shields, Todd. “Possible Tribune Suitor Sinclair Woos FCC’s Pai on Regulations.” Bloomberg News, 27 March 2017. Web. https://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2017-03-27/possible-tribune-suitor-sinclair-woos-fcc-s-pai-on-regulations (Accessed 12 May 13, 2017)

[10] Gertz, Matt. “The Trump Administration Just Helped A Pro-Trump Media Empire Grow.” Media Matters, 8 May 2017. Web. https://www.mediamatters.org/networks-and-outlets/sinclair-broadcast-group-inc (Accessed 13 May 2017)

[11] Frankel, Todd C. “A TV company warned its viewers about the meida’s ‘fake news.’ Now it’s about to take over some of the nation’s biggest stations.” The Washington Post, 8 May 2017. Web. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/a-tv-company-warned-its-viewers-about-the-medias-fake-news-problem-now-its-about-to-take-over-some-of-the-nations-biggest-stations/2017/05/08/dcfc70f0-3416-11e7-b4ee-434b6d506b37_story.html?utm_term=.70392d2a733c (Accessed 13 May 2017)

[12] Byers, Dylan. “Ex-Trump spokesperson joins Sinclair Broadcasting.” CNN, 17 April 2017. Web. http://money.cnn.com/2017/04/17/media/boris-epshteyn-sinclair/index.html

[13] Dawsey, Josh; Gold, Hadas. “Kushner: We struck deal with Sinclair for straighter coverage.” Politico, 16 December 2016. Web. http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/trump-campaign-sinclair-broadcasting-jared-kushner-232764 (Accessed 13 May 2017)

[14] Frankel, Todd C. “A TV company warned its viewers about the meida’s ‘fake news.’ Now it’s about to take over some of the nation’s biggest stations.” The Washington Post, 8 May 2017. Web. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/a-tv-company-warned-its-viewers-about-the-medias-fake-news-problem-now-its-about-to-take-over-some-of-the-nations-biggest-stations/2017/05/08/dcfc70f0-3416-11e7-b4ee-434b6d506b37_story.html?utm_term=.70392d2a733c (Accessed 13 May 2017)

[15]

[16] Thomas, Lauren. “Sinclair Broadcast to buy Tribune Media in $3.9 billion deal.” CNBC, 8 May 2017. Web. http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/08/sinclair-broadcast-to-buy-tribune-media-for-43-50-per-share.html (Accessed 12 May 2017)

[17] Flint, Joe. “Sinclair, Tribune Media Near Deal – WSJ.” Fox Business, 8 May 2017. Web. http://www.foxbusiness.com/features/2017/05/08/sinclair-tribune-media-near-deal-wsj.html (Accessed 12 May 13, 2017)

Categories
Corporate Media Issues

Nolan Higdon is a professor of English, Communication, and History of the US and Latin America in the San Francisco Bay Area. His academic work focuses on nationalism, propaganda, and critical media literacy education. He sits on the boards of the Media Freedom Foundation, Sacred Heart University's Media Literacy and Digital Culture Graduate Program, the Union for Democratic Communications Steering Committee, and the Northwest Alliance For Alternative Media And Education. Higdon is ta co-founder for the Global Critical Media Literacy Project. He has contributed chapters to Censored 2013-2017 as well as Stephen Lendman’s Ukraine: How the US Drive for Hegemony Risks World War III (2014). He has published articles on media and propaganda including “Disinfo Wars: Alex Jones War on Your Mind (2013),” “Millennial Media Revolution (2014),” and “Justice For Sale (2015).” He has been a guest on national radio and television programs.
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