By Eric Marks and Bob Conrad
Sinclair Broadcast Group on Wednesday was fined a record $48 million in civil penalties by the Federal Communications Commission for conduct involving its failed attempt to acquire Tribune Media.
The reason for the fine: deceiving the government and not disclosing that news shows were actually paid advertising content.
“In July 2018, the FCC blocked Sinclair’s $3.9 billion bid to buy Tribune Media. The agency said the company sought to deceive regulators in selling off stations in markets where it would control multiple properties. The buyers were two companies to which Sinclair’s founding family had deep and longstanding ties,” NPR reported.
The FCC’s chair called Sinclair’s behavior unacceptable.
“Sinclair’s conduct during its attempt to merge with Tribune was completely unacceptable,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Others were more harsh.
“Sinclair constantly breaks the law, violates the FCC’s ownership rules and fails to meet the public-interest obligations that broadcasters agree to uphold in exchange for their use of the public airwaves,” said Craig Aaron of The Free Press, a non-profit media advocacy organization. “Let’s not forget that these are the public airwaves, and Sinclair has no special right to broadcast on them.”
Sinclair owns and operates almost 200 stations across the United States, including KRNV News Channel 4 and KRXI Fox 11 in Reno—which it acquired from Intermountain West Communications Company in 2013. It also operates KNSN-TV (“Nevada Sports Net”), formerly KAME, under joint sales and shared services agreements with owner Deerfield Media.
According to the FCC, the penalty issued Wednesday was the “largest civil penalty involving a broadcaster in the agency’s 86-year history.”
The fine, representing twice the amount of the previous record ($24 million placed on Univision in 2007), however, was seemingly of little concern for Sinclair.
The company not only agreed to pay the $48 million fine, but said, through a statement by President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Ripley, it was one that they were “pleased with.”
Even without the acquisition of Tribune Media, Sinclair reaches more than one third of households in the U.S. KRXI reports on its website that “Sinclair’s television group reaches approximately 38.7 percent of U.S. television households and includes FOX, ABC, MyTV, CW, CBS, NBC, Univision and Azteca affiliates.”
This reach gives the media giant control over a vast amount of local news coverage through affiliate stations, such as FOX-11 and KRNV in Reno.
The video message
Sinclair has come under fire for decades for its approach to news reporting. The company, which was founded in 1971, received mainstream consumer awareness in 2018 after a video from Deadspin highlighting corporate-scripted content across various news broadcasts went viral on social media.
Reno’s KRXI news anchors Bill Frankmore and Melissa Carlson—along with reporters and news anchors from local ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX television stations across the nation—were documented in the video reading the same scripted message.
The “must run” messages accused national news media of “fake news” and “creating an agenda to control exactly what people think,” which all the anchors then went on to describe as “extremely dangerous to our democracy.”
The must-run segments “often appear in the middle of otherwise objective local news broadcasts,” according to Business Insider. The commentary matches Sinclair’s largely conservative corporate position.
Sinclair responded to the Deadspin video in an official statement, describing it as an “attack” on what it described as “promotional announcements for local news.”
Scott Livingston, senior vice president of news for Sinclair, said, “It is ironic that we would be attacked for messages promoting our journalistic initiative for fair and objective reporting.”
Sinclair’s statement also said the promos served “no political agenda” and proclaimed Sinclair to be, “one of the most diverse television broadcasting companies in the country.”
President Donald Trump praised the company April 2, 2018 when he tweeted, “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”
The President’s tweet isn’t the first time Trump has been linked with Sinclair. The broadcasting company’s political ties to the Trump administration and Republican Party are well established.
During the 2016 election year, Sinclair Chairman David Smith was quoted as saying, “We are here to deliver your message,” in a meeting with then-candidate Trump.
A former special assistant to President Trump, Boris Epstein, was the chief political analyst for Sinclair until December 2019.
OpenSecrets.org also reports contributions from Sinclair to the Republican Party for election cycles from 1994 to 2020, ranging from 100 percent to 50.66 percent so far in 2020 of total contributions, its lowest percentage in 26 years. The Republican Party received at least 97 percent of Sinclair’s political contributions for seven of the 14 election cycle years.
Old news is new news
Sinclair’s latest run-in with the FCC is nothing new for the company. Wednesday’s ruling reflects a track record of FCC violations and complaints dating back well over a decade.
In 2011 former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said Sinclair was pursuing a “strategy of acquiring interests in or management of more than one station in each market in which it has a television station. In so doing, it has continually pushed against the parameters of ownership structures prohibited by the Commission.”
Copps continued in the official filing to state that “Sinclair has crossed the line into behavior that the majority has found to violate the Commission’s rules.”
Corporate media ownership
According to a 2016 PEW Research Center poll, 82 percent of Americans say they trust local news organizations, six percent more than those who say they trust national media outlets and five percent more than they trust information from their own friends, family and acquaintances.
Many may not realize some local stations are owned by corporate media giants. As a result, companies like Sinclair’s extensive portfolios of community-based news stations make it increasingly difficult to discern between legitimate, independent news and scripted national mandates.
Representatives from Sinclair, locally and nationally, did not respond to a number of attempts for comment.
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