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Pro-Trump Sinclair Network Set to Become Nation's Biggest Broadcaster as FCC Weakens Ownership Rules

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The Sinclair Broadcast Group is reportedly nearing a $4 billion deal to purchase Tribune Media, which would give it control of more than a third of the country’s local TV stations. The reported purchase comes after President Trump’s pick to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, dramatically rolled back limits capping the number of stations one corporation can control. Sinclair’s chair and former CEO, David Smith, is active in Republican politics and supported Donald Trump’s campaign. For more, we speak with Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In media news, the Sinclair Broadcast Group is reportedly nearing a $4 billion deal to purchase Tribune Media, which would give it control of more than a third of the country’s local television stations. The reported purchase comes after President Trump’s pick to head the FCC, Ajit Pai, dramatically rolled back limits capping the number of stations one corporation can control. Sinclair’s chairman and former CEO, David Smith, is active in Republican politics and supported Donald Trump’s campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: All this comes as Ajit Pai has outlined a sweeping plan to dismantle net neutrality rules, which seek to keep the internet open and prevent corporate service providers from blocking access to websites, slowing down content or providing paid fast lanes for internet service. Pai unveiled the plan last month at a forum hosted by FreedomWorks, a right-wing group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. The plan would end a rule classifying the internet as a public utility, leaving the industry to largely police itself. That draft proposal will be voted on during the agency’s next meeting later this month. The plan was recently criticized by comedian John Oliver. Moments after Oliver urged viewers to file comments opposing Pai’s plan, the FCC’s website crashed from the overload.

Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press.

Craig, welcome back to Democracy Now! Why are you so concerned about this?

CRAIG AARON: Thanks for having me, Amy

Well, you know, we’re really concerned about so many things happening at the FCC right now, because Ajit Pai, Donald Trump’s pick to head the agency, has been dismantling all kinds of consumer protections and regulations, certainly net neutrality, which many of us consider the First Amendment of the internet, what protects your ability to go online, do whatever you want, go wherever you want and download whatever you want. And at the same time, they’re unleashing unprecedented—a wave of media consolidation, allowing a company like Sinclair to expand far, far beyond the limits that were established by Congress on how many stations one company should be allowed to own. So we’re seeing a concentration of power on the broadcast side, at the same time they are building up these powerful new gatekeepers, really doing the bidding of the most powerful companies and just paving the way for them to do whatever they want.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Craig, most Americans are not familiar with Sinclair. It’s not like the big television networks. Its name is not a household name, but it’s increasingly gathered a lot of power. And also, aren’t—haven’t they been a pioneer of the model of news where they create hub cities that, in essence, provide news to various—to a half-dozen or a dozen different cities, so that there’s no real local news coming out from a lot of their stations, so they’ve sort of dumbed down the process of even providing local news across America?

CRAIG AARON: Yeah, they’ve done a number of different experiments, but, essentially, yes, they put the same kind of cookie-cutter content across their network, which, if they get this deal done, will be well over 200 local television stations. So they both like to try to buy up multiple stations in the same market, have one newscast going on multiple channels, as well as doing as much as they can from Sinclair headquarters in terms of pushing content out to their whole network. Now, there are good reporters working in all of these newsrooms trying to cover local communities, but the word comes down from on high that they need to supplement their programs with right-wing commentary, slanted coverage of national politics, and Sinclair is pushing that, trying to become really a national network pushing very slanted, conservative, right-wing views everywhere they go, which, if they can complete this deal, will include pretty much all of the biggest markets in the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Aaron, can you talk about the link between Sinclair Broadcast Group and support for President Trump?

CRAIG AARON: Well, they’ve rolled out the red carpet for President Trump. You know, right after the election, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, indicated that he had struck a deal with Sinclair for favorable coverage, where they would air Trump speaking at length without interruption. So, that’s the kind of things that they’ve allowed. They’ve hired multiple Trump’s spokespeople, mouthpieces from the administration, to come on the air, give the administration’s views. And certainly, for years and years now, going all the way back to when they famously aired the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth video that helped sink the candidacy of John Kerry, they have never hesitated, especially around a national election, to put coverage out there that favors their favorite candidate. That candidate is Donald Trump. And from the day after he was elected, Sinclair has been popping champagne bottles, because they figured that now they would get it back, this quid pro quo would happen. They gave this great coverage, and now they’re coming for their reward, which is the lifting of long-standing limits on media ownership.

AMY GOODMAN: And more about the CEO, David Smith?

CRAIG AARON: Well, David Smith has been a big Republican donor for a long time, building up this network. He gives huge amounts of money to Republican candidates and causes. But, of course, the most valuable thing they do is actually open up their airwaves to Republican views. And David Smith is a guy who has instructed his company over the years to try to evade as many rules as possible, setting up shell companies to control more stations, trying to do everything they can to get around the Federal Communications Commission’s restrictions. But you listen to everything coming out of Sinclair headquarters now, and they’re not worried about that anymore. They’re not worried about the FCC getting in the way here, because it’s the FCC who is arranging for them to be able to pull off these megadeals.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you talk about Armstrong Williams, one of their hosts who got fined for the FCC, and how the company reacted to that?

CRAIG AARON: Well, yeah, it’s really remarkable, because here is a guy, Armstrong Williams, actually got caught going on Sinclair and pushing policies while he was on the payroll of the Bush administration as a consultant, but he didn’t disclose it. So the FCC actually has fined Sinclair for airing fake news. And yet, what Sinclair did is not only did they not take Armstrong Williams off the air, they actually promoted him and set him up as the CEO of a front company that allowed them to control and buy more stations. So, that tells you a lot about what this company thinks about payola and fake news.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is very interesting, that this is all happening while the Fox empire is kind of in free fall, right? You have O’Reilly out, Roger Ailes out. Can you talk about the significance of this and also what this can mean for election coverage?

CRAIG AARON: Well, I think you hit on it, Amy. It’s talking about election coverage, because Sinclair’s strategy up to this point has really focused on a lot of swing states, middle America. You know, the Trump team was boasting that Sinclair reached more voters in the state of Ohio than CNN. So they have built up stations all across the country, giving them an incredible reach when it comes to elections, especially reaching older voters who still turn into broadcast television. So, in many ways, Sinclair has become a rival to Fox, a giant of media and conservative media, in particular. There were a lot of rumors that Rupert Murdoch was going to try to get in here and try to buy these Tribune stations. He did not end up bidding. Fox News Corp. did not end up bidding on these stations. And now Sinclair will be by far the biggest chain in the country, again, pushing that political agenda. It’s an incredible amount of media power in one company.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, Craig, this purchase is only made possible because of changes in ownership rules that Ajit Pai introduced. Why are these rules even important these days? Some people would say, "Well, with the spread of the internet and social media, television, broadcast television, is less important these days." Why is it so important to maintain these limitations on ownership?

CRAIG AARON: Well, there’s no question that the media landscape is changing. And for many of us, there are new places to get news and information. But local TV news is still the number one source for news, the number one source people have for information on local politics. And there are many people who don’t have access to high-speed internet service, and their best chance to find out what’s happening in their communities is going to be over the public airwaves. And that’s why it’s so important that we actually have a diversity of voices committed to local communities on these airwaves. That’s why these rules were established, was so that you’d have competing ideas. It’s fine to have a conservative broadcaster; it’s not fine to just have a conservative broadcaster on your airwaves. And local ownership, diversity of ownership ensures a diversity of viewpoints, and it’s really key to just having an informed citizenry and a functioning democracy.

And what the FCC has done here is truly scandalous, because what they have actually done is they’ve gone back and reinstated outdated rules just to make it appear, in FCC land, like Sinclair doesn’t own as many TV stations as they actually do. If they get this deal done and all their pending deals, Sinclair will reach 72 percent of the U.S. population. The federal limit on one company is supposed to be 39 percent. So the FCC went in and actually put back an old rule, that is now meaningless from a technical standpoint, to discount how the FCC looks at the number of stations they own, so it looks like they own half as many stations as they actually do, which is the way they’re paving the way for this deal. And if you listen to what Sinclair is saying, they expect the FCC to follow up and get rid of other limits and other restrictions, as well. And, in fact, at that May 18th FCC meeting, the FCC is putting out a public notice to start the review of ownership rules once again. So, at a time where we need more local news, more competition, more choices, better-informed communities, what we’re getting is the same cookie-cutter content coast to coast.

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