WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Free Press filed a petition to deny Sinclair Broadcast Group’s proposed takeover of Tribune Media, calling the broadcaster’s latest plan to divest some stations to gain approval for the deal a “sham” and a “shell game” designed to dodge longstanding media-ownership limits and undermine the public interest.
Free Press’ petition continues its earlier legal challenge, filed in August 2017, seeking to halt the transfer of broadcast licenses that would give Sinclair control of more than 233 local TV stations reaching 72 percent of the country’s population, far in excess of congressional and FCC limits on national and local media ownership.
The broadcasters has proposed 23 station divestitures as part of its latest tactic to make the Tribune transaction appear to comply with both the Federal Communications Commission’s local broadcast ownership limits and the congressionally mandated national-audience reach cap.
Free Press’ filing exposes Sinclair’s efforts to transfer ownership of these stations in name only while devising various schemes that allow it to maintain control over their finances, content and operations.
Free Press explains that the assignment of Tribune’s licenses to Sinclair would cause a permanent loss of diversity of viewpoints in communities across the country, a dangerous decrease in competition in local news, and a variety of related harms to diversity of ownership and localism in news coverage. The petition also calls out the FCC majority for “reinventing math” and removing safeguards to clear a path for approval of the deal.
The petition is available online at: https://bit.ly/2MJks5P
Free Press Policy Analyst Dana Floberg made the following statement:
“Sinclair’s proposed divestitures are, as we predicted, nothing more than a sham built on deceptive shell games and loopholes. They’re part of the broadcaster’s ongoing efforts to dress up its takeover of the public airwaves while undermining the public interest. These new divestitures do nothing to mitigate the many legal concerns surrounding the Tribune takeover.
“Sinclair has yet again concocted a suite of shady contractual arrangements with its so-called sidecar companies to maintain functional control over many of the supposedly divested stations. In a new deceptive twist, Sinclair’s even using these sham agreements to hide the actual extent of the broadcaster’s national reach. Like the entire proposed transaction, these proposed divestitures violate the spirit and the letter of the law and the Commission’s rules.
“Its plan gives Sinclair control over multiple stations in a single market, which will lead to fewer stations producing original news, and more stations rebroadcasting the same cookie-cutter programming handed down from Sinclair’s corporate headquarters. Such arrangements are particularly harmful to people of color and low-income families who rely on free, over-the-air television news more than other communities, and who will bear the brunt of the harms caused by the waves of newsroom closures and job cuts that go hand in hand with Sinclair-style consolidation.
“For the FCC to approve this transaction on the basis of dramatically weakened ownership rules — including the UHF discount currently under litigation — would be a serious affront to the public interest. This would also raise additional concerns about an improper relationship between Trump FCC officials and a broadcaster with a pro-Trump political bias.
“Even with Sinclair’s proposed divestitures, the transaction would result in a broadcast combination reaching 58.8 percent of the national television audience with its owned stations alone, far exceeding the congressionally mandated 39-percent national cap. In an effort to pave a path for Sinclair, the Trump FCC has opened a rulemaking to consider modifying or eliminating that national cap – despite the fact that the agency has no statutory authority to do so.
“Regardless of how the FCC majority may try to reinvent math or redefine ownership, the proposed divestitures do nothing to mitigate the overwhelming harms of greenlighting a merger of this size.”