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As news ownership consolidates, will local TV become more partisan?

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai arrives for a meeting in Washington. The FCC is currently reviewing a proposed merger between Sinclair Broadcast Group and Tribune Media.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File

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Until recently, most Americans had likely never heard of Sinclair Broadcast Group. But the conservative network, which is seeking a $3.9 billion merger that would make it the most influential player in local TV, set off alarm bells this spring when it required all its anchors around the country to read a statement about the importance of unbiased journalism.

On the surface, the statement sounded fairly reasonable. “Unfortunately, some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think.…This is extremely dangerous to a democracy,” it said in part. It urged viewers to get in touch if they saw its coverage as unfair. 

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But coming from a network that regularly requires its stations to run conservative programming, including segments from former Trump senior adviser Boris Epshteyn, a Sinclair political analyst, the statement was seen by many as a broadside against mainstream media outlets for perceived liberal bias. And the tactic struck some viewers as something drawn from a communist playbook rather than America’s constitutional ideals.

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“They acted like the old Soviets, where they had people get up and read a statement,” says Harold Beu, a liberal Democrat and retired teacher in Kalamazoo, Mich., a Democratic city that is home to Sinclair’s WWMT station. “[It] really flies in the face of what journalism should be about.”

Yet even as Sinclair’s political leanings have become a focus of national debate, there is a larger trend afoot that may be of far greater consequence: the consolidation of TV ownership. The deregulation of local TV broadcasters over the past several decades has opened the way for a small number of corporations to control ever-larger swaths of the market – and thus to influence the American public’s views about society, democracy, and their role as citizens.

Sinclair’s proposed merger is symptomatic of a larger trend, says Danilo Yanich, professor of urban affairs and public policy at the University of Delaware, who has been tracking Sinclair and the larger consolidation movement for a decade. As he sees it, the politics involved are in some ways a distraction.

“If you look at that, your eye is off the ball,” he says. “Your eye should be on the consolidation, whoever the consolidator is.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice are expected to decide soon on whether to allow Sinclair’s merger with Tribune to go forward.

Opponents of the deal, including the Communications Workers of America union and 22 Democratic senators, as well as some prominent conservatives, are urging the FCC to await the outcome of a related federal court case before making a decision. The US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is reviewing an FCC decision from last year that has made it easier for media giants like Sinclair to control a greater share of the market.

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Changing the rules

Under current law, which aims to preserve a diversity of media ownership and thus a diversity of viewpoints on the public airwaves, a company is only allowed to reach 39 percent of the total national audience.

However, in calculating that reach, companies are allowed to count UHF stations as just half a station, a rule that originated when UHF stations had an inferior signal. With the advent of digital TV, there is no longer a technical justification for the “UHF discount” and thus the FCC, under the Obama administration, had done away with it.

After President Trump’s election, the FCC reinstated the discount. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argued that the UHF discount and the national audience cap were inextricably linked, and it had been a mistake to address one without the other.

But critics said the reinstatement was a politically motivated move to help Sinclair, which just three weeks later announced its merger with Tribune.

Even Chris Ruddy, a close friend of Mr. Trump’s and CEO of the conservative media outlet Newsmax, criticized the deal. In a Washington Post op-ed, he warned that the FCC was embarking on policies “that will lead to the greatest concentration of television media power in history.”

In addition to reinstating the UHF discount, the FCC has eliminated a nearly 80-year rule to require TV broadcasters to maintain a local studio in the communities they serve.

FCC spokesman Neil Grace refutes criticism that Mr. Pai has shown favoritism toward Sinclair. “Given that the FCC under Chairman Pai’s leadership recently proposed a $13 million fine against Sinclair, the largest fine in history for a violation of the Commission’s sponsorship identification rules, the accusation that he has shown favoritism toward the company is absurd,” Mr. Grace said in an email. He adds that recent FCC changes to media ownership regulations are an effort to match the realities of the modern marketplace. Pai has argued that free markets will do a better job of protecting customers than government regulations. 

A trend toward consolidation

The original proposal for the Sinclair-Tribune merger would have increased the number of stations Sinclair owns and operates to 223 and granted it access to 72 percent of American TV households. After applying the UHF discount, however, its reach would be calculated at 45.5 percent, still over the 39 percent cap. The company recently put forward some amendments that would bring down its footprint to 215 stations and 59 percent of households, and a national reach of 37.39 percent with the UHF discount

It’s not just Sinclair that is consolidating, however. Just last month, Gray Television Inc. and Raycom Media Inc. announced a $3.6 billion merger that would make them the third-largest TV conglomerate in the country. And Nexstar Media Group, which completed a major merger just last year, has just been approached by Apollo about a possible buyout.

Professor Yanich, who in 2015 produced a study on localism in TV news, found an inverse relationship between consolidation and the amount of local news coverage. In four of six markets he analyzed in depth, the more consolidated stations produced significantly less local news than their counterparts in those same markets.

“What people don’t understand is that the product is not the newscast, the product is the people watching it,” says Yanich. “We’re being sold to advertisers.”

While that may provide a path to business success for a struggling media industry, some see it as a corporate perversion of a public good – the airwaves. If those airwaves are used to promote corporate interests or ideological agendas rather than highlighting issues of concern to local citizens, the argument goes, then they’re not really serving the community well – and are more susceptible to becoming partisan.

Barry Shanley, a retired WWMT TV anchor who was once ranked the most trusted newscaster in West Michigan, sees corporations like Sinclair as playing an active role in eroding the overall quality of journalism and the public’s trust in the media.

“Our own industry is undermining us to the public,” he says. “I hope that the audience is discerning, and saying, ‘Look, I’m not going to watch the news on a station whose management I don’t trust.’ ” 

‘I wouldn’t change a thing’

In February 2017, Randy Lubratich, a veteran TV journalist with 26 years of experience, was fired as executive producer at Sinclair’s WWMT station in Kalamazoo, after writing a pair of tweets critical of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Mrs. Lubratich, who had worked at many stations including Fox News in New York, says she knows she violated Sinclair’s policy disallowing personal political expression on social media. Nevertheless, she accepts the consequences of having taken a moral stand against the Trump administration.

“I think to stay silent in the face of anything you might see that’s dangerous is repeating history,” says Lubratich. “Even if I had known that that would cost me my job, I wouldn’t change a thing.” 

Shortly after her firing, on Feb. 10, Sinclair executive Scott Livingston sent out an internal memo to staff warning them against political bias, according to FTLive, which published a copy of the memo.

“I want to remind everyone of our policy regarding personal political postings and fairness with our reporting,” wrote Mr. Livingston, citing a “troubling trend” of one-sided coverage. “I want to make sure you’re taking time to review with your team the importance of understanding our commitment to tracking the truth and challenging the accepted narrative in the mainstream media.”

Lubratich sees Sinclair’s policy as hypocritical, coming from a network known for its conservative leanings. 

Mr. Livingston, who was promoted to senior vice president of news several weeks later, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. (Editor's note: This section was updated to clarify the timing of events.)

A decline in quality

To some viewers, the demise of local TV news wouldn’t be the end of the world. With a mix of consumer features and soft news reports, many stations are not exactly holding local governments accountable, instead leaving that job largely to newspapers. 

Jim Connell, a veterinarian in a small town north of Kalamazoo who is heavily involved in his community, commends the Kalamazoo Gazette for its coverage – despite massive staff cuts in recent years that have reduced the paper to publishing just three days a week. 

“When we do have something happen locally that is significant, the Kalamazoo Gazette does a magnificent job covering it,” he says. “When I watch television ... there seems to be an agenda,” says Dr. Connell, who watches WWMT in Kalamazoo as well as CBS, and speaks wistfully of the days of Walter Cronkite.

Peter Battani, a public official in the Kalamazoo area from 1995 to 2015, also says he has more respect for the print media. But he sees a troubling decline in the quality of coverage across the board.

“It’s disturbing, because when you’re in public office, you need the public to be educated,” says Mr. Battani, a Democrat who served as the Kalamazoo County administrator as well as on the county board. “The corporations, they buy up the media – and then all you get … is where the best pumpkin pie is.”

“I can’t tell you at this point that I have experienced Sinclair as a dogmatic or ideological station. I’ve just experienced them as crappy news,” he says, adding that citizens are complicit in the declining quality of media. “We’re all busy with our lives – the kids, the job, the Super Bowl, the basketball game. We’re sold what we want to buy.”