A viral YouTube video of dozens of local TV anchors reading the same scripted message to viewers has inflamed a debate about media bias in the era of President Trump. And critics say the Federal Communications Commission is responsible for enabling and emboldening the right-leaning company behind the scripted content, Sinclair Broadcast Group, in ways that could ultimately hurt conservatives and liberals alike.
“The president's FCC, under Ajit Pai, is opening the door to major liberal networks like NBC and ABC to do exactly what Sinclair did,” said Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, another conservative media group. The FCC declined to comment.
The script Sinclair distributed to news hosts across the country and had them read on-air, sometimes reportedly against their will, reflects how the company has deftly used its ownership of nearly 200 TV stations. Anchors at those stations began airing the roughly one-minute promo last month, warning audiences of the perils of fake news.
“Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think,” the anchors intoned to millions of viewers. Sinclair didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but in an internal memo, according to CNN, company executives defended the speeches by saying Sinclair's mission is to share information “to alert, protect and empower our audiences.”
The substance of the messaging may have been relatively neutral by Sinclair's standards; for example, the company requires stations to run — as often as nine times a week — conservative commentary by Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump White House official. Sinclair's other politically charged “must-run” content was explored in a 2017 segment by HBO's John Oliver. But unlike those efforts to manage what appears alongside a Sinclair station's original content, the fake-news promo is a significant attempt by Sinclair to dictate what comes out of the mouths of TV anchors.
It's an example of the type of programming that some policy analysts said would become more common after the FCC eliminated a decades-old rule last year whose purpose was to keep local TV stations under local control. Known as the “main studio rule,” the now-defunct federal requirement required radio and TV stations to operate a physical studio in the areas where they were licensed. In voting to repeal the rule, Pai said technological advances make it no longer necessary for stations to keep the lights on in a physical studio; many broadcasters, including NPR, agreed. Pai also said the repeal could help financially struggling broadcasters survive. The chief operator of one small radio station, KMXN in Lawrence, Kan., estimated that complying with the rule cost him $5,000 a year.
But eliminating local studios would lead to more broadcast programming being produced in areas far from a station's home audience, opponents said.
“At a time when broadcast conglomerates like Sinclair are gobbling up more stations,” the consumer advocacy group Free Press said in a regulatory filing last July, “the Commission’s proposal would allow these conglomerates to move even more resources away from struggling communities and further centralize broadcasting facilities and staff in wealthier metropolitan areas.”
Mignon Clyburn, one of the FCC's two Democratic commissioners, said last year repealing the rule would signal that “automated national programming is the new normal.”
By lifting the main studio rule, the FCC made a decision that benefited broadcasters, including Sinclair's 193 stations. But that isn't the only recent policy change that could help Sinclair as it strives to become an even bigger broadcasting giant.
In November, the FCC repealed another media rule, one that prevented TV stations in a given market from merging if it meant the deal would leave fewer than eight independently owned stations in that market. Pai has also taken aim at a national cap on broadcast ownership. That rule says no broadcaster can reach more than 39 percent of the nation's households. And one of Pai's first acts was to reinstate an accounting method, known as the UHF discount, that effectively helps big broadcasters stay on the right side of the cap.
All these moves could prove beneficial to Sinclair in light of its attempt to acquire Tribune Media. As structured, the $3.9 billion deal risks putting Sinclair on the wrong side of the national cap by giving it control of 233 local TV stations that altogether reach nearly 3 in 4 U.S. households.
The import of the deregulation to Sinclair's deal has raised red flags among some federal lawmakers, as well as the FCC's own inspector general's office, which is investigating whether Pai may have coordinated with the company in connection with the policy changes.
“For months I have been trying to get to the bottom of the allegations about Chairman Pai’s relationship with Sinclair Broadcasting,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the New York Times in February when it first reported the investigation.
Whether the FCC intentionally favored Sinclair, Ruddy said the agency's changes to media policy have been rewarding not only to the conservative broadcaster, but they have also incentivized other media businesses to behave in similar ways. And because Sinclair's programming is typically less highly rated than that of other networks, he added, even Sinclair's conservative content risks being drowned out by centralized voices pushing liberal content down to broadcast stations.
“My concern is not Sinclair,” Ruddy said. “My concern is, the whole universe of TV networks are now going to be able to homogenize and package news, and it's going to be extremely detrimental to Republicans and conservatives and President Trump.”