Spreading like wildfire right now is this remarkable video:
This is what mind control looks like. pic.twitter.com/WVHFy9qDZ0
— Steve Franssen ?? (@SteveFranssen) March 31, 2018
People have likened this to brainwashing and what totalitarianism looks like, and while I don’t know about that, it sure is creepy. The stations in particular are a part of the Sinclair Broadcasting family. Sinclair has something of a reputation for being rightwing:
You might remember Sinclair from its having been featured on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight last year, or from its requiring in 2004 of affiliates to air anti-John Kerry propaganda, or perhaps because it’s your own local affiliate running inflammatory “Terrorism Alerts” or required editorials from former Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn, he of the famed Holocaust Remembrance Day statement that failed to mention Jewish people. (Sinclair also owns Ring of Honor wrestling, Tennis magazine, and the Tennis Channel.)
The context makes it seem worse. Because otherwise, it’s… not actually that bad. It’s more a reading of a mission statement or statement of principles than anything, and it’s not surprising that you would see some uniformity there. It’s mostly just creepy to watch. And beyond that, as propaganda it’s not especially effective. The Trump spin was so unclear to the uninitiated that a lot of people thought it was it was a leftist attack on Trump and the “fake media” that made him president. So they didn’t get the message that Sinclair was trying to send.
All of that said, I’ve commented before both on Ordinary Times and Twitter that local news could represent some real opportunity for the right. In terms of prestige, it’s beneath the national-minded left’s notice, for the most part. The news equivalent of local school board elections. You rack up enough of those, and you might have something. Beyond that, it is relevant above and beyond the propaganda value. One of the problems with conservative media is that people who aren’t conservative or hyper-political have no use for it. It’s preaching to the choir. Meanwhile, there is a lot of center-left media that is interesting to people across the spectrum. So this represents an opportunity not just for Sinclair, but for the right, to have some serious influence in media that sits in the commons.
Will it work? It’s honestly hard to say. The case against it working is the waning influence of local news. There is a reason that there is a vacuum here for Sinclair to enter. Consolidation is occurring in good part due to an iffy financial picture. Local news organizations are expensive, and if people aren’t watching, there are a lot of cheaper things they can run in their stead. There is also a strong possibility that they will do it wrong. If they go full Fox Jr, people who aren’t in the choir will just change the channel. And the temptation to go that route will be strong. And lastly, there is a lot of competition, so for conservatives in general to succeed there, they would want Cox and others to join Sinclair the way that a lot of AM stations joined the bandwagon once that model was discovered. If they don’t, then despite the concerns Sinclair’s influence will be limited.
From what I gather, though, Sinclair stations are considered dangerous by some precisely because going full Fox Jr is not what they are doing. If they pepper their point-of-view in between reports on the cat show at the convention center and the carjackings on the southeast side of town, people will come for those stories, and also get a good dose of sermon about the Deep State. That’s how you do it, both commercially and politically. Further, although the market may be tough going forward, if they are committed to this, Sinclair will keep going while others fold. It’s not clear that several competing news organizations can thrive, but there is a strong likelihood at least one or two might with limited competition.
In response to this story, a lot of Sinclair’s critics keep pointing ominously to the fact that Sinclair stations reach 40% of homes, and if the FCC goes forward with some deregulation, that number could jump to 70%. Whether the deregulation is a good idea or not, that’s less scary than one might think. How many homes does CBS News have access to? Far more than 70%. Sinclair could have access to 100% and it still wouldn’t bother me. That’s the wrong thing to be thinking about. The right thing to be concerned about is how much of the various markets they control where they exist. It’s better that they be one of eight options in six cities than six of eight options in one city.
The FCC’s rules on this are actually pretty stringent:
National TV Ownership
The National TV Ownership rule does not limit the number of TV stations a single entity may own nationwide so long as the station group collectively reaches no more than 39 percent of all U.S. TV households. For the purposes of calculating the “national audience reach,” TV stations on UHF channels (14 and above) count less than TV stations operating on VHF channels (13 and below), this is also known as the UHF Discount. The National TV Ownership rule is no longer subject to the FCC’s quadrennial review.
Dual TV Network Ownership
FCC rules effectively prohibit a merger between any two of these networks: ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC.
Local TV Multiple Ownership
An entity is permitted to own up to two TV stations in the same Designated Market Area if either:
- The service areas – known as the digital noise limited service contour – of the stations do not overlap
- At least one of the stations is not ranked among the top four stations in the DMA (based on audience share), and at least eight independently owned TV stations would remain in the market after the proposed combination
So then I have nothing to worry about, right? The problem is that these rules are poorly enforced. Worse yet, they’re not poorly enforced because of Donald Trump and the Republican Party. They’re just poorly enforced, period.
In Columbus, Ohio, there are six local channels and Sinclair operates three of them. How do they get past the straightforward regulations? Quite easily. They technically only own one of them, the second is owned by a company called Cunningham Broadcasting, and the third is owned by a company called Manhan Media (that interestingly doesn’t have a corporate website). While Cunningham Broadcasting is a separate legal entity from Sinclair Broadcasting, that appears to be something of a legal fiction. Cunningham is owned by the same people that operate Sinclair, and almost all of Cunningham’s channels are operated by Sinclair. In 1999, Cunningham was poised to buy a network in Oklahoma City until a rule change allowed Sinclair to buy it, and Sinclair bought it instead. In 2001, Sinclair was fined $40,000 for illegally controlling Cunningham, but no action has been taken since. In Mobile-Pensacola, Sinclair operates four channels (of ten in the area) with Sinclair owning two of them and Cunningham owning the other two. Presumably each can own two because Mobile-Pensacola is a big area and they can theoretically satisfy the exclusion requirement. Reno, Nevada, has seven local channels, of which Sinclair runs three. One owned by Sinclair, one owned by Cunningham, and one owned by a company called Deerfield, which appears to owns a handful of networks and has sold a few, almost entirely to and from Sinclair, and another company called Nexstar, which coincidentally operates the only company owned by Cunningham that Sinclair doesn’t operate (but that otherwise seems uninvolved with this).
To make a long story short, even prior to Trump, the restrictions put on channel ownership were extremely leaky and ineffectual. Sinclair picked up its second Columbus channel in 1997 when Clinton was president, and its third in 2011 when Obama was. It picked up its second and third Reno stations in 2013. Its second Mobile-Pensacola channel was in 2001, and the other two in 2012. Lest we let Trump off the hook, Sinclair acquired seven channels in Chico, California, and that is a direct result of the FCC’s intent to alleviate the 40% media reach cap. I have no idea how that possibly gets by FCC requirements. However, they were all previously owned by another single entity, Bonten Media Group, which somehow cleared the single-market restrictions. All of which is to say that under no president in the past twenty-five years has the FCC appeared to be interested in enforcing the limits on the number of channels a company can own.
It’s not clear to me exactly what the restrictions would be. I was discussing the prospects of a rightward takeover of local news with Nob, and he argued – quite credibly – that local news is on its way out and consolidation itself is a product of how these networks are struggling. If that’s true, then there isn’t nearly as much harm in letting companies like Sinclair or whomever take over these channels. There’s a limited number of bidders. So while I would prefer no company own more than one or two local channels, that doesn’t work if nobody wants to buy them. On the other hand, while we assume that everybody has cable, it’s nonetheless the case that ratings between cable channels and OTA channels are night and day, even when showing substantively similar material (like sporting events where it’s a coin toss which appears on ABC and which on ESPN). That demonstrates that the real estate they hold is still incredibly important, in which case something has gone pretty wrong.
Critics of Sinclair continue to focus on how many households it reaches, which is simply the wrong question. The question is how many options a household has that isn’t operated by Sinclair.