News anchors being forced to denounce their competition as “fake news.” TV segments described as “must-run” that air a mix of misinformation and pro-government talking points. Contracts that penalize reporters if they quit.
This environment may sound like that of a propaganda outlet but they’re actually conditions gripping reporters and anchors at America’s largest owner of local news stations, Sinclair Broadcast Group. More troubling, that media company is being shielded by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under the leadership of conservative FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Last week, a promotional script for a must-run segment — shared by KOMO-TV and published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and later reported by ThinkProgress and Deadspin — was leaked, demonstrating how Sinclair forced its news anchors to parrot pro-Trump messages. The revelation sparked renewed concerns about Sinclair’s power over local broadcasters.
Compounding the matter is that fact that Sinclair is actively expanding. The group currently owns 193 stations, and is in talks to acquire Tribune Media Company for $3.9 billion. If approved, it would mean that Sinclair would be able to broadcast into 72 percent of U.S. households — or 87.3 million homes.
Sinclair’s sudden ascendancy to pro-Trump media giant is worrying. But it was only made possible through actions taken by the Republican-controlled FCC under Chairman Pai, who has become conduit through which corporate advocates can fast-track deregulation efforts in telecom and media — often at the expense of the consumer.
Over the last year, Pai and the FCC aggressively pursued rule rollbacks and new policies extremely friendly to big businesses like Sinclair and major telecom providers. Last November, for instance, the FCC laid the groundwork for Sinclair’s merger by repealing a decades-old rule which prevented media companies from merging if it meant fewer than eight independently owned stations remained in a given local market. In October, the FCC also repealed the “main studio rule,” which requires broadcasters to have a studio in the area where they’re transmitting. In practice, this means that major national broadcasters could take over more local stations and beam in select messages from afar — instead of focusing on local news.
Pai defended the decisions, saying that doing so would “open the door to pro-competitive combinations that will strengthen local voices.” He did not mention that the changes would also benefit Sinclair, enabling it to carry out its multi-billion dollar merger with Tribune media unchecked.
A similar scene played out in December, when the FCC voted along party lines to repeal net neutrality. Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, said the repeal would restore “a favorable climate for network investment…spurring competition and innovation that benefits consumers.” In reality, the repeal gives huge and unpopular corporations like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast increased power over what websites consumers can see and which websites are relegated to a lower tier of service.
When Pai was criticized by tech companies for allowing the repeal to take place, he turned on social media giant Twitter, accusing it of silencing conservatives and arguing that it and other social media companies “routinely block or discriminate against content they don’t like.” (It should be noted that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey willingly tweeted a plea for outside advice in March, citing the platform’s nightmarish moderation policy.)
Over the years, Pai has endeared himself to conservatives so much that he received the NRA’s “Charlton Heston Courage Under Fire Award” at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — despite the net neutrality repeal being staggeringly unpopular among Republican voters.