President Donald Trump criticized the decision of a government regulator to block the expansion of a television station operator who has supported conservative voices.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered on July 18 that a merger of Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media needs to be reviewed by an administrative judge—a process that usually poses a high risk of scuttling a deal.
“So sad and unfair that the FCC wouldn’t approve the Sinclair Broadcast merger with Tribune,” Trump commented in a July 24 tweet. “This would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People. Liberal Fake News NBC and Comcast gets approved, much bigger, but not Sinclair. Disgraceful!”
Sinclair operates 192 television stations across the country and a merger with Tribune, which operates 42 stations, would make it cover nearly 72 percent of the population. Under FCC rules, TV operators have to limit their coverage to 39 to 78 percent of the population, depending on what frequencies they broadcast. They also can’t own two stations ranked among the top four in an area. That’s why Sinclair has to divest some stations for the merger to go through.
The FCC was concerned about some of these divestments since they would transfer the stations to companies that have close ties with Sinclair, which “raises significant questions as to whether those proposed divestitures were in fact ‘sham’ transactions,” the order reads.
Sinclair argued that the FCC has approved similar arrangements in the past. For years, TV operators have used the method of selling the broadcasting license to a closely tied company while still de facto controlling the programming and advertising of the station.
Rather than killing the deal, the FCC ordered a hearing before an administrative judge. But such “referrals have typically meant a de facto merger death sentence,” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in a statement appended to the order.
O’Rielly supported the order after the commission approved his proposal to have the judge promptly announce a complete schedule for the proceedings, including a date for completion.
“I realize that many merger applicants will be unable to withstand the market pressures to end transactions long before any such timelines are established or exhausted,” O’Rielly said.
Most of Sinclair’s stations are primarily affiliated with one of the “big four” networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox.
Sinclair’s executive chairman, David Smith, has denied the company pushes a political slant. An April paper by Emory University researchers showed Sinclair’s channels lean more right than others on national topics, but have a lower “density” of a political slant.
Smith has donated tens of thousands to campaigns of both parties, though, more to Republicans.
Sinclair distributes “must-run” segments to its stations, which include two-minute conservative commentaries several times a week by former Trump communications staffer Boris Epshteyn.
“My segments are very clearly marked as commentary. The same cannot be said for cable and broadcast news hosts, who inject their opinions and bias into news coverage all the time, without drawing any lines between them,” Epshteyn said in one of the segments.
The NBC and Comcast merger mentioned by Trump was approved by the FCC in 2011 and allowed the telecom giant to control a major chunk of American national news, including NBC News, CNBC, MCNBC, and Telemundo. The same year, then-FCC Commissioner Meredith Baker, an Obama-appointed Republican, left the commission for a lobbying job at Comcast. Comcast stated the job offer was extended only after the merger was complete.
NBC reaches about 90 percent of the population through its affiliates, about 20 of which are owned or operated by Sinclair.
Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts gave hundreds of thousands of dollars mostly to Democrat campaigns, while his vice president and top lobbyist, David Cohen, helped raise over $6 million for Barack Obama’s 2009 presidential bid, The Hill reported.
Local TV stations have had a tough time adapting to the changing media landscape that pits them against cable and internet content providers. They’ve managed to save costs by merging and sharing content and resources, but many smaller players have eventually sold their operations to large operators such as Sinclair.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed to the FCC by Obama and to chairmanship by Trump, have been relaxing regulations on local TV stations, allowing more mergers and leaner operations.
“With the commission’s recent liberalization of the local ownership rules, local stations now have the opportunity to begin to achieve, through consolidation, some of the same economies of scale and scope in local markets long enjoyed by the networks nationwide,” TV affiliates of the “big four” said, TVNewsCheck reported.
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“I reject a system which allows an ambitious, misinformed and dogmatic mob to suppress free speech, create false narratives, and apathetically steamroll over the truth.”