Donald Trump’s favorite local TV chain is about to get a lot bigger thanks to — wait for it — Donald Trump.
Trump’s Federal Communications Commission is paving the way for Sinclair Broadcast Group — already the nation’s largest TV conglomerate — to take over Tribune, which owns 42 stations in many of the country’s big cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Denver.
You may not have heard of Sinclair. But if you watch your local news, there’s a good chance you’re already watching a Sinclair-owned station.
Sinclair already owns 173 stations, which are local affiliates in different cities for national networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC. If this merger goes through, Sinclair will own a whopping 215 stations.
No company has ever had that degree of control over local TV news, which is still the top news source for a majority of Americans.
This deal would have been unthinkable in any other administration. But Trump’s FCC is actually rewriting the rules to make it happen — and to give one of the administration’s loudest media boosters an even bigger megaphone.
Sinclair is no ordinary company: It’s notorious for slipping right-wing views and Republican talking points into its newscasts. It overrides the objections of local journalists and requires its stations to run conservative commentaries and slanted stories every day.
In March, for example, Sinclair ordered its local stations to air a Trump-friendly commentary that accused the national media of publishing “fake news.”
This behavior is nothing new for Sinclair: This is the same company that aired the distorted Swift Boat movie that helped sink John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. Sinclair also refused to fire commentator Armstrong Williams after the FCC fined the company in 2007 for airing government propaganda and failing to disclose his conflicts of interest.
Instead, Sinclair put Williams in charge of one of its front companies.
And Sinclair went all out for Trump in 2016. Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, has bragged about a special deal he struck with Sinclair to get Trump uninterrupted favorable coverage. The company has been hiring Trump-campaign spokespeople as analysts ever since.
Now Sinclair’s getting its payback.
If this deal goes through, the company’s cookie-cutter, Trump-boosting content could reach more than 70 percent of the U.S. population. But to pull off its takeover of Tribune, Sinclair needs the FCC to change the rules.
So that’s exactly what FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is doing: As one of his first acts, he changed how the agency calculates station reach so Sinclair could dodge the ownership limits. In fact, the FCC is now pretending that Sinclair would reach just 44 percent of the national audience — even though the company is already boasting to investors that it will actually reach a much greater share.
Sinclair would still need to sell off a couple of stations to get under the national cap. So company lobbyists are pushing to get rid of any limits whatsoever.
The FCC’s ownership rules were designed to ensure a diversity of local voices and opinions — but women and people of color own very few TV stations. Instead of creating policies that promote equity and opportunity, the Trump FCC would rather super-size Sinclair.
For years, Sinclair has been using every trick in the book to evade and undermine the rules. Now the game has changed: Instead of appointing a referee to call corporate fouls, Trump gave the whistle to Chairman Pai, a cheerleader for runaway consolidation.
If you don’t like this rigged game, now is the time to make your voice heard.
Craig Aaron is the president and CEO of Free Press. Distributed by OtherWords.org.