Sinclair, the U.S.’s largest broadcaster, forces a Rhode Island TV news station to run heavily biased coverage favoring President Donald Trump, according to a weekend local newspaper story that broke days after the Federal Communications Commission said it’s taking a deeper look at Sinclair’s proposed merger with the second-largest U.S. broadcaster.
The Providence Journal’s Saturday front-page story says WJAR-TV, the state’s most-watched television station (acquired by Sinclair in 2014), started “quietly” broadcasting hard-right “must-run” news packages with a pro-Trump slant a year ago.
“Sinclair is poised to become the nation’s largest owner of TV stations and, with its recent hire of former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn, viewers can expect to see more of the chain’s political programming,” the Journal article reads.
That’s because Sinclair is pursuing a $3.9 billion buyout of Tribune Media, a transaction that would let Sinclair reach 87.3 million of the 119.6 million homes that Nielsen estimates have TVs — more than 70 percent of all U.S. households. The potential expansion is pushing critics to shine a light on Sinclair’s political bias and the content it distributes to its 170-plus stations across the country.
Such programs include the Terrorism Alert Desk, a daily news update about supposed-terrorist activity that once featured a segment on burkinis, news pieces from Epshteyn — Sinclair’s chief political analyst with a history of propagating unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud — and editorials by former Sinclair executive Mark Hyman in which he dubs liberals “snowflakes” and describes political correctness as a “nasty cancer epidemic.”
In Rhode Island, Sinclair’s must-run content is pushing lifetime-WJAR viewers to change the channel.
“Gloria Crist, a 54-year-old actress from Tiverton, says she’s stopped watching the station,” the Journal reports. “Rep. David N. Cicilline condemned the practice, saying: ‘Rhode Islanders rely on our local news being produced in Rhode Island, not directed by a national conglomerate for local broadcasters to deliver.'”
The report comes days after the FCC announced it’s seeking more information in its review of the merger, also subjected to review by the Department of Justice.
“In order for the commission to review the applications and make the necessary public interest finding,” FCC Media Bureau head Michelle Carey wrote to Sinclair Friday, “we require additional information, documents, and clarifications of certain matters discussed in the applications and other information submitted to the commission.”
Critics and Democrats in Congress accuse Trump’s FCC of facilitating the merger with a round of deregulatory rules changes benefitting Sinclair, which forged an agreement with the Trump campaign for favorable coverage during the 2016 election season according to Politico.
The most significant was the change to a federal cap blocking any broadcaster from reaching more than 39 percent of the national audience. The outdated technical loophole was revived by Trump’s appointee to lead the FCC, Ajit Pai, who met with Sinclair and Trump personally on multiple occasions after the election, before the rules change and the deal was announced.
A group dedicated to opposing the merger, the Coalition to Save Local Media, said the agency’s pursuit of more information implies it’s “taking steps to give the Sinclair-Tribune merger the scrutiny it requires by asking the applicants questions raised by interested parties as well as members of Congress that have gone unanswered for far too long.”
“Now Sinclair-Tribune must justify how this merger is in the public interest and how the combined company plans to comply with ownership rules,” the group said Friday. “While our coalition eagerly awaits Sinclair-Tribune’s response, sharp scrutiny must be given to any and all evidence they provide.”
Merger’s falling under FCC jurisdiction must meet a higher bar than at DOJ by proving the transaction will benefit the public. Members of the coalition and others who have filed with FCC formal requests to deny the merger — including Dish Network, T-Mobile, cable companies, and even fellow conservative media outlets like The Blaze and Newsmax — say Sinclair has already failed that test.
They warn if approved, Sinclair will have leverage to raise prices for its content, gut local news rooms, shape news content to meet is political bias and slow the conversion of some broadcast airwaves to spectrum for cell towers, necessary to meet the growing demand for high-bandwidth mobile applications like video streaming.
Sinclair argues the merger is the only way broadcasters can compete with streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.