The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Trump’s support for Sinclair Broadcasting is so concerning

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)

This past weekend, Deadspin scored a viral hit with a video showing numerous Sinclair Broadcast Group anchors reading a televised op-ed decrying “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one sided news stories plaguing our country.” As it turned out, Sinclair had required the anchors to read the script and their network local news programs to air it.

This attracted all but immediate condemnation. “Naked propaganda,” declared GQ. “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy,” tweeted Jimmy Kimmel.

This morning, President Trump offered his opinion:

Did someone say CNN? What a coincidence. As I type, Time Warner — the parent of CNN — is facing off in court against the Justice Department, which wants to stop the proposed merger of Time Warner and AT&T on anti-competitive grounds.

Meanwhile, Sinclair is currently attempting to receive approval from both the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department to acquire Tribune Media. If that deal is approved, it would allow Sinclair local stations to reach more than 70 percent of American households.

These are two dissimilar cases. Yet Trump’s tweet highlights the fact that in his administration, companies that favor the president seem to get treated one way, while those who appear to be neutral or even opposed to his administration risk getting publicly abused by him.

Follow Helaine Olen's opinionsFollow

In an interview Monday, William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that despite the differences between the two cases, they could end up having an impact on one another in legal terms.

“Legally speaking, the two issues are very different, but in a court of law the ability of one to have an effect on another is there,” said Galston, who is also the author of a new book on how populism threatens liberal democracy.

Here’s why. AT&T and Time Warner are battling in court against the Trump administration’s blockade of their merger, and their case is based, in part, on the fact they believe they have been unfairly targeted by the administration. And Trump’s treatment of Sinclair could help their case.

Sinclair — by attempting to buy up the Tribune Company — is proposing an expansion of its reach. The deal, which is raising traditional concerns of regulators and antitrust law, needs to be reviewed by both the FCC and the Trump Justice Department.

So far, the FCC, led by Trump appointee Ajit Pai, has all but gone out of its way to let the Sinclair deal proceed. Even though federal law dictates that a broadcaster cannot reach more than 39 percent of U.S. households (Sinclair is currently at 38 percent), the FCC created a loophole by voting to bring back a rule that does not consider so-called UHF stations fully on par with more traditional VHF channels. This would allow Sinclair to expand while remaining under the threshold. (In reality, the reach difference between UHF and VHF channels disappeared along with rabbit ear television antennas.)

The FCC has also rolled back rules that limited the number of stations one broadcaster can own in a media market and impeded consolidation in areas with less than eight independently owned stations. In addition, the agency will now allow broadcasters to seek waivers so they can control more than one of the top four stations in a given media market.

At the same time, Sinclair is in discussions with the Justice Department — as it should be — about what stations it could sell so that the deal is allowed to proceed.

The proposed AT&T and Time Warner merger is a different beast. The Justice Department is fighting against it, claiming it would give the newly enlarged company the power to charge rival distributors higher fees to distribute their content.

A number of people — including this writer — have argued this is right on the merits. But from the get-go, there have been concerns that the Justice Department opposition to the deal is less about antitrust concerns and more about carrying water for Trump, who is famously unhappy about CNN’s coverage. The Justice Department reportedly pressured executives from Time Warner to sell CNN as a condition for merger’s approval and sources claimed that may have meant something fishy was going on.

But Sinclair is a known conservative outlet, one friendly to Trump during his campaign for president. It was reported after the election that Jared Kushner claimed he struck a deal with Sinclair, offering up access to Trump in return for the broadcaster running less than probing interviews with the then-candidate for president. (Sinclair says it asked both Hillary Clinton and Trump to take part in interviews with its new anchors, but that only Trump took them up on the offer.)

Trump’s tweet in support of Sinclair dredges up this disconcerting history. But it’s also troubling on a deeper level. It’s becoming clear that corporations are increasingly coming to feel they either need to kowtow to the current president or potentially suffer the consequence of his disfavor on their bottom line.

The more Trump rages at outlets whose coverage he dislikes while fawning over Sinclair, the more concerned we all need to be.