What are the local DC TV stations

Right-wing media group in the USA: Trump-related broadcaster thwarted

The ultra-conservative “Sinclair Broadcast Group” wants to expand its power in local television by merging. But there is a setback.

Had a change of heart: Ajit Pai, the chairman of the US Broadcasting Commission Photo: dpa

BERLINtaz | Until recently, it looked like the Trumpists would soon secure a monopoly on US local television. The ultra-conservative, Trump-affiliated media group "Sinclair Broadcast Group" wants to buy up its competitor "Tribune Media" and would thus massively expand its reach. The US broadcasting supervisory authority FCC did not seem to mind, on the contrary: it was still making the upcoming merger easier in November by deregulating the market a little in the spirit of Sinclair.

But now the authority has suddenly changed its decision and has the merger examined by an administrative court. FCC chairman Ajit Pai said last week that he had "serious concerns" about the merger, surprising opponents of the merger. Actually, Pai, who was appointed to the commission by Donald Trump, is a proponent of the group merger.

"Sinclair Broadcast Group" is headquartered in Maryland, near the US capital Washington D.C. The group operates almost 180 local television stations across the states. Sinclair plans to acquire 39 additional stations for 3.9 billion dollars through the takeover of Tribune Media. Critics, including the organization FreePress and the left-wing think tank “Media Matters”, have been warning for over a year that Sinclair could develop into a monopoly in the local television market - one with a clear right-wing, nationalist and conspiracy-theoretical ideology.

Many consider Sinclair to be a Trump propaganda machine. The station is closely intertwined with Trump's former campaign team. Trump's campaign strategist Boris Epshteyn is a political commentator there and regularly defends the president against his critics in his video comments. During the election campaign, the candidate Trump gave Sinclair broadcasters regular exclusive interviews.

It is also explosive: local stations in the Sinclair network are contractually obliged to broadcast these and other Trump-friendly contributions from the central editorial office - even though the local editorial offices are actually autonomous. These so-called “must-runs” include Epshteyn comments as well as sensational “terrorism news” and, in March of this year, an orchestrated denigration of the “mainstream media”.

There is great trust in local television

Spreading this type of political message on local television is particularly interesting in terms of PR because the local television stations generally enjoy a broad level of trust. In a 2016 survey, almost half of Americans said they get their news from local television. Significantly fewer named online sources (38 percent) and national broadcasters (30 percent). Print newspapers are even further behind at 20 percent.

Local broadcasters in the USA usually broadcast a supporting program that they buy from major networks such as ABC, Fox or MSNBC - the rest is done by the local editorial staff with local news about traffic, weather, criminal cases and stories about people from the area. Viewers usually associate “their” local station with their place of residence and perceive it as something familiar. Few of them realize that they see content from a central editorial office on the east coast.

If Sinclair swallowed the Chicago rival Tribune Media, the group would be the only local television provider in many areas of the United States. Viewers could still switch between different channels, but it would be a sham choice. This applies to areas in politically relevant swing states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan. Such a complete takeover was previously prohibited on local television, but the relevant rule was overturned by the FCC in November. So far it looked like the FCC chairman Ajit Pai not only wanted to allow the merger, but also to facilitate it.

FreePress is therefore already suing a court in D.C. against the merger. The journalistic NGO and critics claim that Sinclair would reach 7 out of 10 US households with his version of reality after buying Tribune Media. Numbers like this are hypothetical and vary depending on the basis, but there is broad consensus that it would be more than 39 percent of US households - the threshold that the FCC rules cannot exceed.

So far it looked like Sinclair would use tricks to circumvent this rule. For example, by the group selling channels and actually continuing to operate them through informal agreements. The FCC also made this possible in November with a corresponding exception rule. The Washington D.C. Court of Appeals now check whether that was lawful. However, a decision is not expected before autumn - the merger could already be over by then.

Conservative competitor felt threatened

So it is all the more important that FCC chairman Pai is now reporting his concerns. There could be several reasons why Pai appeared to have turned one hundred and eighty degrees. On the one hand, the FreePress lawsuit now also causes the Justice Department to deal with the case, which increases the pressure on the FCC.

It is also possible that Pai's change of heart has to do with a conservative media entrepreneur whom the merger would disrupt his business plans: Trump supporter Christopher Ruddy, who runs the influential conservative news platform Newsmax.com issues. Ruddy sees a potential mega-corporation Sinclair as a threat to his own reach - and has apparently already expressed these concerns to the president, the conservative wants New York Post have experienced.

Sinclair reacted very quickly to Ajit Pai's statements with concessions and offered to remove three local stations from Tribune Media's sales mass. The FCC was not convinced, they unanimously decided on Wednesday that the proposed merger must be reviewed by an administrative court. The merger negotiations are likely to be interrupted for the time being, which is a setback for Sinclair.

However, this does not mean that the efforts to merge have been completely shattered. It is possible that the court will impose further requirements. And the right-wing group could bypass these again by means of exceptions. In addition, Sinclair - at least from Donald Trump's point of view - doesn't even have to control that many local markets. To help the president to be re-elected in 2020, a few selected regions in the decisive swing states will suffice.