The Worst Merger Yet

Benton Foundation 

The more people learn about the frenzied Big Media-Wall Street rush to consolidate our communications ecosystem into a playground for monopolists-on-the-make, the more they dislike what they see. For example, a recent poll shows two-thirds of us are opposed to competition-busting transactions like AT&T and Time Warner, almost equally divided among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

Less well-known until recently is the Sinclair-Tribune proposal currently pending at the Federal Communications Commission. Sinclair is already publicly bragging that it will get the FCC nod of approval in the months just ahead. I have called Sinclair “the most dangerous company most Americans have never heard of.” Already the country’s largest local TV station owner (173 stations now, 215 post-merger), Sinclair has an insatiable appetite for more. But that’s what all aspiring monopolists strive for, right?

This is the worst merger proposal (and there have been some real stinkers!) ever to come before the FCC. Sinclair is a company that has bent FCC media ownership rules to get where they are, and now they’re going from bending rules to outright breaking rules. One example: Congress has set a limit of 39% of the national audience that any one station owner can reach. (That’s already way too high, and—you won’t be surprised—a major reason it was set at that level several years ago was so that a merger that pushed over the previous 35% limit could fly under the radar.) A Sinclair-Tribune combination would reach 72% of the national audience. So you are probably wondering how this deal could even be considered. Well, there’s a lot of lobbying going on, and a ton of money being spent, to convince Congress or the FCC to hike that 39% even higher. (Like to maybe 73%?) It appears that FCC Chair Ajit Pai is busily at work figuring how the Commission could undercut the 39% limit absent Congressional action. Sinclair knows that our non-legislating Congress will have difficulty getting to a vote on this in time to get the deal approved as quickly as it and Chairman Pai would like. They are on dangerous and, I believe, illegal ground.

Another way Sinclair has built its empire is to end-run caps on the number of stations that one company is permitted to own. Instead of outright purchase of a station, it has developed clever joint management/financial agreements that stop short of complete ownership but still give it control. I call these “joint evasion agreements.”

More recently, Chairman Pai and his Republican colleague revived an out-of-date rule that allowed station owners to count their UHF outlets as just one-half of their VHF stations when it came to ownership caps. The rule made no sense once the 2009 digital television transition erased the difference between VHF and UHF, which is why it was eliminated under Chairman Tom Wheeler. The new Chairman talks about getting rid of out-of-date rules, yet he brought this one back in order to open the floodgates to even more mergers!

There is also a deeply-ingrained ideology that pervades Sinclair. Slanted editorials are written at company headquarters and then sent out to the company’s stations around the country, with expectations they will be read on-air. When a locality’s trusted “news” anchor reads these on-air, even if she might not agree with them, they nevertheless carry a cachet they would not otherwise possess. We need also to remember such Sinclair projects as the malicious Swift Boat attack launched against war-hero John Kerrey during his run for the Presidency. The list goes on.

I have written in this space many times about the damaging effects that accompany media merger mania, such as: the virtual disappearance in many markets of real local and community news; the closing of news bureaus covering state capitals, where far more legislating is done than it is in Washington, DC; the substitution of infotainment pabulum for news that matters; talk radio and cable news networks more interested in shouted opinion than in fact-based journalism; the ongoing elimination of essential investigative journalism that has accompanied a reduction of somewhere between one-third and one-half of broadcast newsroom employees; and, sadly, the dumbing-down of our civic dialogue to such an extent that citizens’ ability to make informed judgments on local, state, and international issues is seriously eroded. We make decisions on what we know, and when we don’t know we can make really bad decisions. You can list them as well as I can.

These past few weeks another effect of Sinclair’s centralized power has surfaced. It has to do with, of all things, the weather. Sinclair’s $4 billion transaction has to be financed, so the buying party immediately looks around for where it can cut costs. It’s not just journalists who are cut, but weather anchors, too. The Coalition to Save Local Media is just out with a report on past weather reporting cutbacks made by Sinclair. When floods and hurricanes come calling on communities, and the station’s weather staff has been reduced, public safety is endangered. Too often we think in abstract or ideological terms about media mega-mergers. But Harvey and Irma bring it into real-life terms—people’s safety and people’s lives. I am not saying the company set out with such effects in mind or that it didn’t cover these natural disasters. But this is yet another of the sometimes unintended but very real consequences of media consolidation. I hope the FCC can think about this in real-world terms, too. It’s an issue that hits us where we live.

We the People need to let the FCC, Congress, and the White House know how we feel about Sinclair in particular and media mergers generally. Don’t expect good media policy to come from the current folks who are in charge inside the Beltway. They are driven by a deadly brew of special interest influence and, often, nonsensical ideology. They respond only too supinely to the likes of Sinclair and other aspiring market monopolists. These folks have access that you and I don’t have. Sinclair has met numerous times with Chairman Pai. It met with the Trump campaign, according to many reports, to cut a deal for enhanced election-year coverage of candidate Trump. It has easy White House access. So does Chairman Pai have easy access to the White House and to the President himself; there have been at least two personal meetings between them since the election. Nobody knows for sure what was discussed in those meetings, but it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to imagine that mergers and Sinclair-Tribune were part of the conversations.

Discouraged as I am about developments inside the capital city, I am tremendously encouraged by the growing popular realization that the Big Media and Big Telecom wish-list is badly out of sync with democracy’s requirements. It is long past time for us to demand a reassertion of the common good. That means a halt and a reversal to public and private sector media policies that have inflicted grave damage on our democracy for the past 20 and more years.

Michael Copps served as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission from May 2001 to December 2011 and was the FCC's Acting Chairman from January to June 2009. His years at the Commission have been highlighted by his strong defense of "the public interest"; outreach to what he calls "non-traditional stakeholders" in the decisions of the FCC, particularly minorities, Native Americans and the various disabilities communities; and actions to stem the tide of what he regards as excessive consolidation in the nation's media and telecommunications industries. In 2012, former Commissioner Copps joined Common Cause to lead its Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.

Benton believes that communications policy—rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity—has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Communications-related Headlines is the only free, reliable, and non-partisan daily digest that curates and distributes news related to universal broadband, while connecting communications, democracy, and public interest issues.

By Michael Copps.