Amid concerns over promotional segments which ran on many of its local news outlets in March, Sinclair Broadcasting Group will likely be expanding operations, moving into one of Ohio’s five largest television markets soon.
The company, which owns Columbus TV stations WTTE, WSYX, and WWHO, plans to merge with Tribune Media, which owns WJW (Fox 8) in Cleveland. WJW is in Ohio’s largest television market.
The merger — which would allow Sinclair to broadcast up to 72 percent of U.S. homes, far beyond the reach of any other group — is under review by the Federal Communications Commission, an agency Peter Shane, a law professor at Ohio State, said is not likely to be swayed by concerns from the public over the group’s potential Republican influence.
“It is clear that the majority of the FCC currently is less anxious about media consolidation than some predecessor versions of the agency,” he said.
Awareness of Sinclair’s influence spread on social media on March 31 after a script for promotional segments the company required anchors in each local affiliate to read on-camera. The segments criticized what they called “biased” media outlets for reporting “false news.”
An edited version of the segment released by Deadspin shows a version of the segment with dozens of news anchors’ voices and footage overlapping.
An excerpt of the script read, “The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media. More alarming, some media outlets publish these same fake stories without checking facts first. Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think. This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
To Shane, the promos were an extension of President Donald Trump’s hostile rhetoric toward media outlets critical of him and his administration. Additionally, Poltico reported in December 2016 that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House advisor, said the Trump campaign struck a deal with Sinclair to provide more fair coverage.
“The idea that any broadcaster of Sinclair’s scope would buy into the ‘fake news’ narrative is frightening and deplorable,” Shane said.
The Poynter Institute reported Friday that a letter was sent to Sinclair denouncing its mandated promos by the heads of journalism schools at 13 universities. Among the signees were deans and department chairs from Ohio University, the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland.
“Ironically, Sinclair’s use of news personnel to deliver commentary — not identified as such — may further erode what has traditionally been one of the strongest allegiances in the news landscape, the trust that viewers put in their local television stations,” an excerpt of the letter read.
Tony D’Angelo, station manager for Sinclair’s Columbus channels — ABC 6, The CW and Fox 28 — declined to comment on the matter for this story, but emailed links to commentary provided by others in defense of Sinclair. One piece was a New York Times interview with David D. Smith, CEO of Sinclair, and the other was a blog post by Sinclair employee Sharyl Attkisson, who also is a former CBS News correspondent.
Smith was quoted in the New York Times interview as saying that the messages were not political and that must-run content is a normal practice in the broadcast industry.
In her blog post, Attkisson agreed the promos were not political, but acknowledged many people took them that way. Additionally, she called the Deadspin video “propaganda” created by Sinclair’s competitors to interfere with the company’s merger.
“Who’s really trying to do the [brainwashing],” she wrote. “Think for yourself.”
To comply with regulations, Sinclair plans to sell stations in some markets, Shane said, but selling stations doesn’t necessarily mean losing control over them.
“If Sinclair is successful, what they could do is try to find companies that are friendly to them, that are willing to buy the licenses,” he said, “but because of their friendliness, they’re willing to contract with Sinclair to provide management and content.”
Shane said media consolidation should still concern the FCC, especially now that people are returning to over-the-air signals since the advent of digital broadcasting.
“We remain in an era of huge influence from people who control the content of over-the-air broadcasting,” he said. “We shouldn’t think that that’s a marginal concern.”
Citizens concerned about Sinclair’s practices could petition the FCC and Congress for changes in policy, Shane said, later adding concerned viewers also can write to local stations or stop watching the newscasts.
“That’s an uphill climb,” Shane said, “but it’s not implausible.”