When French voters resoundingly elected a centrist president rather than a right-leaning antiglobalist this month, one reason may have been the nation’s news media.
As a French newspaper editor commented: “We don’t have a Fox News in France.”
The United States certainly does have one. Pretty soon, it may have the equivalent of two.
Sinclair Broadcast Group has struck a deal with Tribune Media to buy dozens of local TV stations.
And what Fox News is for cable, Sinclair could become for broadcast: programming with a soupcon — or more — of conservative spin.
Already, Sinclair is the largest owner of local TV stations in the nation. If the $3.9 billion deal gets regulatory approval, Sinclair would have 7 of every 10 Americans in its potential audience.
“That’s too much power to repose in one entity,” Michael Copps, who served on the FCC from 2001 to 2012, told me. Sinclair would have 215 stations, including ones in big markets such as Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago, instead of the 173 it has now.
There’s no reason to think that the FCC’s new chairman, Ajit Pai, will stand in the way.
Already, his commission has reinstated a regulatory loophole — closed under his predecessor, Tom Wheeler — that allows a single corporation to own more stations than the current 39 percent nationwide cap.
And Pai has made no secret of his deregulatory fervor. The former Verizon lawyer, an FCC commissioner for five years, is moving quickly.
“We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation and job creation,” Pai said in a speech late last year.
Copps, now an adviser to Common Cause, puts an entirely different spin on the new FCC’s approach: “They believe in a corporatized media.”
The stakes are high — and not just for Sinclair’s business interests. There’s evidence that when Sinclair takes over, conservative content gets a powerful platform.
When Sinclair bought Washington’s WJLA-TV in 2014, the new owners quickly moved the station to the right, as my colleague Paul Farhi repeatedly has documented. It added conservative commentary pieces from a Sinclair executive, Mark Hyman, and public affairs programming with conservative hosts. (The deal would give Sinclair a second Washington station, WDCW.)
And Sinclair regularly sends “must-run” segments to its stations across the country. One example: an opinion piece by a Sinclair executive that echoed President Trump’s slam at the national news media and what he calls the “fake news” they produce.
Some of Sinclair’s local journalists objected — this commentary, they reasonably complain, is presented as though it were part of the news report.
During the presidential campaign, Trump’s message came through loud and clear on Sinclair’s stations, many of which are in small or medium-sized markets in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, even bragged, according to Politico, that the campaign cut a deal with the media conglomerate for uninterrupted coverage of some Trump appearances.
Is there a link between such content — and the expectation of more — and the loosening of federal rules?
Tim Karr, strategy director at Free Press, an advocacy organization that opposes media consolidation, certainly thinks so.
“It’s legitimate to suggest a quid pro quo — a trade of policy favors for favorable media coverage,” Karr told me.
Sinclair’s Rebecca Hanson, a senior vice president, objected: “With respect to Sinclair, this speculation is patently false.” In an email, she insisted that the company’s content is not partisan, but rather based on impartial local news reporting.
An FCC spokesman declined to comment on Karr’s assertion.
It may be going too far to say that conservative content has a direct tie to federal policy decisions. And it’s probably not even a necessary element.
We already know that the Pai-led commission believes in deregulation that will help a company like Sinclair grow into an even bigger behemoth.
We already know that Sinclair’s audience reach probably will be immense, and its political influence wide — just like Fox in the cable world. (Fox’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, also tried to buy the Tribune stations.)
And we already know that Sinclair makes conservative programming a part of its offerings, in some cases taking decision-making out of the hands of local news people.
The long march of media consolidation is a given. That’s a shame, because local TV news is still fairly well-trusted, while public trust in the media as a whole is scraping bottom.
But as former FCC commissioner Copps put it: “The bazaar is open as it’s never been open before.”
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan