In a perplexing dance toward consensus, left and right have united to pour vinegar on Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s effort to add Tribune Media’s 42 television stations to the 173 it already owns.
You’d think that Sinclair—which hikes on the conservative side of the news by forcing its stations to air commentaries by former Trump advisor Boris Epshteyn and other right-tilting segments (“Terror Alert Desk”)—would be cheered by its fellow media ideologues. But no. Newsmax, One America News Network and Glenn Beck’s the Blaze have joined with the lefties from Public Knowledge, Common Cause, Free Press and Media Matters for America to decry the $3.9 million acquisition. The opposition doesn’t stop there. Such businesses as Dish Network and T-Mobile have decanted their protests, too, demanding that the Federal Communications Commission block the deal, as have broadcast trade associations.
The regulatory basis for the acquisition—and the complaints—as Thomas W. Hazlett explains in the Hill, is the FCC’s recent reinstitution of the “UHF discount,” which changed the rules determining how many TV stations a company can own. The left has always screamed media monopoly when one media entity purchased another, so in denouncing the Sinclair-Tribune deal, they’re at least consistent. Although Sinclair’s political bent adds to the total volume, they’d be making similar noises had other prospective suitors, including Nexstar, 21st Century Fox and CBS submitted the winning bid.
But what gives with Newsmax, ONA and the Blaze? As principled conservatives, shouldn’t these broadcasters abide by the dictates of the market and not run to regulators yelping for protection? Instead, Newsmax lifts every regulatory cliché about media concentration, homogeneity and press diversity ever articulated by the left. “A free and diverse press, a bedrock principle of American democracy, will be crippled by this proposed merger,” Newsmax said in its FCC filing.
These complaints might make sense if we were still living in 1950, when cable television barely existed; spectrum licensing limited the number of over-the-air TV stations a region could receive to a maximum of six or maybe seven; satellite television, satellite radio, any mobile devices were a thing of science fiction; and the Internet had only barely been imagined by Vannevar Bush. Today, the United States has 1,775 total television stations, about 5,200 cable systems run by 660 operators reaching 90 percent of homes and so many cable channels that TV executives complain about their number. The idea that Sinclair, with 215 stations reaching 72 percent of U.S. households, might banish competing viewpoints from the marketplace reeks of stupidity. Add the competition offered by rising over-the-top television networks like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube and others, and the Newsmax argument all but dissolves.
Newsmax grievance isn’t about maintaining a “free and diverse press” but about Newsmax (and the ONA and Blaze) using what Hazlett calls “zombie rules governing phantom markets” to shield their conservative news products from a rising competitor. In today’s media environment, outlets like Newsmax have no more “right” to the audience coveted by Sinclair than local grocery stores have to their customers when WalMart comes to town. If Newsmax wants to compete in the marketplace, it should improve its product and find ways of reaching more viewers instead of pleading for regulatory relief. Buried in Newsmax’s objections, I suspect, lurks the network’s genuine fear: That a newly expanded Sinclair will use its leverage to start a new cable news operation to compete against them and the big dog in the neighborhood, Fox News Channel. After all, Bill O’Reilly is available, and Sean Hannity isn’t happy where he is.
The lefty opposition against Sinclair actually seems to be an argument against media diversity and for media homogeneity. Nowhere on television—not even on Fox-owned stations—is the conservative point of view pursued as aggressively as it is at Sinclair. In 2004, for example, Sinclair canceled from its ABC affiliates Ted Koppel’s Nightline recitation of the U.S.’s Iraq War dead as untoward editorializing. Later that year, it ran a documentary on presidential candidate John Kerry that was so critical it caused Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Dianne Feinstein of California to call for an investigation. In both cases, Sinclair’s unorthodox, hard-conservative programming provided viewers with a point of view they couldn’t get elsewhere. If rejecting what other journalists are doing and following a unique isn’t the mark of media diversity, I don’t know what is.
If the left truly wished death upon Sinclair, it would urge the FCC to change ownership rules so that big broadcasters with different news “philosophies”—ABC (Disney), NBC (Comcast), and CBS—could buy more stations. But the left remains too stitched up in its 1950s thinking about consolidation to advocate that.
Might Sinclair’s fight for Tribune’s stations turn out to be a fool’s bargain? For the media diversification reason chronicled above, the conventional television business model has passed its golden years. In 2015, the Bernstein research outfit predicted a “period of prolonged structural decline” for the television industry as viewers continue to defect from ad-supported outlets to on-demand services like Netflix and Hulu. Maybe instead of discouraging Sinclair from making the deal, the company’s foes and competitors should encourage them to close it.
Disclosure: Sinclair bought the television stations belonging to Politico’s parent company in 2013 for almost $1 billion. I didn’t see a penny of it. Send billions to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts listen to AM radio, my Twitter feed fancies shortwave, and my RSS feed kills podcasts on sight.