On April 20, Mignon Clyburn, the sole Democrat on the Federal Communications Commission, forecast a wave of broadcast media acquisitions and mergers on the near horizon. The FCC had just reinstated a rule affording media companies certain leeway in calculating the extent of their television ownership interests—a boon for any conglomerate seeking to expand its presence on the nation's airwaves. Donald Trump-appointed chair Ajit Pai, who had opposed the Obama administration's abolishment of this so-called UHF Discount just seven months earlier, touted his commission's reversal. In her April 20 dissent, Clyburn had a decidedly different take.
"Welcome once again to Industry Consolidation Month," she wrote.
Clyburn's prediction began coming true almost immediately. The day after the FCC's ruling, Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group announced it had entered into an agreement to buy the stock of New York's Bonten Media Group Holdings, which owns 14 television stations nationwide, including NBC affiliates KECI in Missoula, KCFW in Kalispell and KTVM in Butte and Bozeman. Two weeks later, Sinclair followed up with an even bigger announcement: a $3.9 billion deal to acquire Chicago-based Tribune Media Company and its 42 stations, an acquisition Sinclair President and CEO Chris Ripley described as "transformational."
KECI General Manager Tamy Wagner referred the Indy's inquiries to Sinclair. When the Indy reached out to another KECI employee, Wagner called to reiterate that Sinclair would field any questions about the Bonten purchase. A Sinclair spokesperson did not respond to multiple messages requesting comment for this story.
If both sales win FCC approval, Sinclair will reach more than 70 percent of the country's television-viewing public. Given the FCC's 39-percent limit on how many households a single company's stations can reach, that scale of ownership wouldn't be legal without the UHF Discount. The discount, implemented in 1985, was intended to credit station owners for the weaker signal of channels on the UHF band when calculating their overall ownership. Critics of the decision to reinstate the rule contend that, with the move to digital broadcasting nearly 10 years ago, UHF is more desirable now. They also say that the FCC's reversal is a byproduct of Sinclair's cozy relationship with the Trump administration, and that it was intended specifically to set the stage for Sinclair's recent purchases. Last December, Politico reported that the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had bragged to Manhattan business executives that the Trump campaign had struck a deal with Sinclair to secure more favorable media coverage—a claim Sinclair didn't so much deny as recharacterize. On April 17, Sinclair announced it had hired former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn as the company's chief political analyst.
- photo by Chad Harder
- A recent FCC ruling has opened the door for Sinclair Broadcast Group—widely criticized for its conservative bent—to execute two major acquisitions, one of which includes Missoula’s KECI.
But it's not Sinclair's connections to the Trump administration that have raised the loudest alarm. The media goliath has come under increasing scrutiny for its apparent conservative bent. Just last week the New York Times ran a story about Sinclair distributing short video segments defined as "must-runs" to its various stations, including a segment from the company's "Terrorism Alert Desk." As recently as March, Sinclair stations were required to run a short statement from the company's vice president for news, Scott Livingston, accusing other national media outlets of publishing "fake stories."
"They are pushing package stories from Washington [D.C.] headquarters that often are hard to distinguish from Republican Party talking points in terms of their framing, and they get especially active in doing this when it comes to election season," says Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the nonprofit Free Press, an advocacy group for press independence. "You can go back to 2004Sinclair was the network that aired the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth 'documentary' aimed at taking down John Kerry."
Aaron, whose organization joined a half-dozen other groups in formally petitioning the FCC to stay its recent UHF Discount reversal pending judicial review, says Sinclair has a lengthy track record of pushing "cookie-cutter content" onto its affiliate stations. Conservative politics and conservative ideology are the company's "special sauce," he adds. He cites their use of commentary from longtime conservative pundit Mark Hyman, also Sinclair's vice president of corporate relations, and former Ben Carson campaign manager Armstrong Williams. Others have criticized the company for recent layoffs targeting newsrooms. Seattle's ABC affiliate KOMO—purchased by Sinclair in 2013—lost both members of its investigative reporting team to cuts in January.
Aaron doubts the quality and editorial decision-making at local stations like KECI will change under Sinclair ownership, at least not immediately. Viewers are far more likely to notice the company's conservative leanings in national-level segments aired locally, but crafted at Sinclair headquarters, he says. And they should speak up when the do.
"I think as a news consumer, especially in this day and age of consolidation and concentration, you really have to work to find your alternative and independent sources of information. It's incredibly important with a dominant outlet like Sinclair that folks are out there critiquing and criticizing and pointing out when they see something they don't think is right."