Column: Sinclair’s Grab for Power Leaves It Badly Damaged

  • FILE - This Oct. 12, 2004 file photo shows Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc.'s headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md. Tribune Media is ending its $3.9 billion deal with Sinclair Broadcast, and has filed a lawsuit against Sinclair for breach of contract. Sinclair had offered to buy Tribune’s 42 TV stations. The two companies had until midnight Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018 to call the deal off and have been facing tough regulatory challenges. (AP Photo/Steve Ruark, File)

For The Baltimore Sun
Friday, August 10, 2018

Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group’s now failed takeover bid for Tribune Media brought it a kind of national scrutiny it had never faced in its history, particularly for its conservative politics.

From the moment it was announced, I predicted the deal would make Sinclair the most hated company in America. But I never imagined it would end as miserably as it did Thursday morning for the Hunt-Valley-based broadcaster, with Tribune walking away from the deal and announcing a $1 billion lawsuit against Sinclair for its conduct in handling the deal.

“Given the developments of the last few weeks, and the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to refer certain issues to an administrative law judge in light of Sinclair’s conduct, it’s highly unlikely this deal would ever receive FCC approval and be completed, and certainly not within an acceptable time frame,” Tribune CEO Peter Kern said in a statement. “As for the lawsuit, we are confident Sinclair did not live up to its obligations under the merger agreement and we intend to hold them accountable.”

Couple that with what had been a super-friendly FCC chair in Ajit Pai suddenly reversing course last month and suggesting Sinclair had been less than straightforward in its attempts to get under ownership caps by setting up deals with business associates to hold licenses for stations Sinclair would run, and you have a very serious image problem to say the least.

The head of the company you were about to partner with for the last 15 months and the chair of the FCC are both calling you shady — and one of them is willing to take on the president of the United States who appointed him and the other is going to court to prove it in what is sure to be a long and costly process.

And that is only the start of Sinclair’s woes on the first day of the rest of its corporate life after flying to close too sun and falling to earth in a ball of molten wax.

Sinclair management regularly pushed back against me when I wrote about what I see as its right-wing politics. It did so even after it named former Trump aide Boris Epshteyn its chief political analyst in April 2017 and he delivered the closest thing I had seen to classic propaganda in more than three decades of covering the medium. The company’s pushback included an emphasis on what Sinclair executives described as its responsible journalism.

Good luck with trying to sell that, folks, in the wake of the tweets from President Donald Trump saying how much he loved Sinclair and how great it was compared to what he calls “fake news” at such industry leaders as The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and NBC.

Having Trump endorse your journalism as he calls the mainstream press the “enemy of the people” is like having Harvey Weinstein endorse your company’s treatment of women in the workplace.

And in case the mass audience hadn’t picked up on some of the press criticism of Sinclair, there was that Deadspin video, which went viral, showing Sinclair anchor after anchor mouthing the same script like automatons or propaganda puppets.

Let’s not forget John Oliver’s satiric attack on Sinclair on his HBO show early last summer.

Oh, yeah, Sinclair got above the radar in its grab for glory — way above the radar, which makes for so long a fall.

This attempted takeover and the way Trump was pushing for it with his FCC chair initially moving heaven and earth to make it happen went against everything the Communications Act of 1934 stood for in its effort to make station license holders broadcast to some extent in the public interest. The action by Tribune is a victory for all the forces that opposed such politicization and power.

“The collapse of this merger is as major a victory for American consumers as it is a defeat for the propaganda pushers at Sinclair,” Karl Frisch, executive director of Allied Progress, a Washington-based consumer watchdog organization opposing the deal said in a statement Thursday morning. “Dozens of communities will now be sparred from nightly force-feedings of content advancing the fringe political agenda of the media behemoth’s owners.”

This is also a victory for the Baltimore-area citizens who started organizing last summer against the deal with educational meetings at public libraries and pickets outside Sinclair headquarters in Hunt Valley, Md. The actions of these residents should be seen as evidence that even a handful of concerned citizens can make a difference.

David Zurawik is the media critic for The Baltimore Sun.